Rosa Parks was no accidental heroine in the American civil rights movement; and nor is her kindred spirit, Shirley Sherrod--a dignified government agriculture official who lost her job in a public humiliation--sadly, one for the Obama administration. Sherrod is a gift to us, a wise older woman who took shabby treatment on the national stage without a trace of victimhood. She did not say a word against Tom Vilsack, the cabinet secretary who demanded she resign via Blackberry without too much information. When he realized how wrong he was for believing something he saw on Fox News, he said he was sorry. Like Parks, Sherrod has shown she is made of quiet class and conscience that will not accept second-class citizenship. Telling a true, transformative story about her own journey in racial justice in the Deep South, she refused to be branded as a racist--and did not crack when even the NAACP briefly turned on her, one of its own. (The organization also quickly apologized.)
Now it's well to see the parallels between these two remarkable women, Parks and Sherrod. In their lives, both married men who also marched in the movement. In other words, they are good people who had to fight for their rights. They belong to the Moses generation, while President Obama is in the next Joshua generation, as David Remnick, the author and the editor of the New Yorker, likes to say.
In 1955, Parks refused to surrender her seat in a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. So she got arrested on her way home from a hard day's work. That electrified a young Baptist pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., who mobilized black citizens to stage a bus boycott--an outcry against injustice that moved a nation. Parks was the catalyst, but she wasn't a simple seamstress sitting on a bus--she was a seasoned civil rights activist and a leading light in her local chapter of the NAACP. In a small personal voice, she intended to challenge the rigid system of second-class citizenship. One woman's action moved the Promethean rock higher toward the mountaintop.
History's arithmetic is fitting. From 1955 to 2010 is 55 years. It's as if the Zeitgeist knew that we needed to see a morality play on race now, with a heroine who makes us pause and rethink everything. It's not only the rabble-rousers at Fox News--it is the rabble itself that lets false and unforgivable story lines get their dander up. Just as in Parks' day, white men are leading the pack of politics, power and media influence--and they make up most of the members of the pack, too. Throughout our country's story from the first day, they are accustomed to being power players in the national narrative and in these uneasy economics times, lots of tensions are rising to the surface. I would be remiss if I didn't state the obvious: Having our first black president during these hard times makes race an even more roiling, boiling subject this sweltering summer. Even a usually fair-minded man like Vilsack let all the hot air get to him. He shall rue it the rest of his life.
Last summer, the eminent Harvard history professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested as he was trying to enter his own home, returning from a vacation by a white police officer. Gates is African-American. I had the opposite experience in my life as a reporter: A black woman officer arrested me at a scene that looked a lot like police brutality. Getting arrested is no small thing, even if you spend less than 24 hours being held in jail and your newsroom rescues you. It's a deep cut on one's sense of justice. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote the masterpiece “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but then he was a brilliant Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Well, we have a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the White House. Obama never suffered the cuts of segregation, arrest, or a race-tinged firing in front of the nation's eyes. But he has empathy, imagination and eloquence to start a dialogue on race in the public square, bring generations together, and cross the divide with civility. The Beer Summit between the president, the professor, and the police officer last summer was a little short on meaning in the moment. Like Gates, Shirley Sherrod deserves a White House invitation, doesn't she? In truth, perhaps the president needs to see Sherrod--to see what she has seen--more than she needs to see him.