Last night, October 25, 2005, a 92-year-old lady died in Detroit. We never met, but she changed my life…and all our lives. She was 42, when she boarded that Montgomery bus in 1955. I was 16, a sophomore in a New York City high school, coming of age at the end of an age, oblivious, as was she, of the shape of the new age just dawning.
I’m speaking, of course, of Rosa Louisa McCauley Parks, who, of a December day in 1955, refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus to a man – a white man – and who for that “crime” was arrested, booked, and photographed, her “mug” shot numbered 7053.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was then but 24, fresh from Boston University, full of himself and Reinhold Niebuhr, and intent not so much on social justice as on balancing the budget at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church as a brand new pastor. Dr. King had been at Dexter but a year and, as Charles Marsh noted wryly, “understood that ministerial success depended on polish in the pulpit and people in the pews.” And, so, he preached…forty-six times that first year at Dexter, seven guest lectures at other churches, and another thirteen at colleges around the country.
Montgomery at the time was the same size as Vallejo – 120,000 – but, although forty percent of the population was African American, not one sat on any city board or commission. The average annual income for a black family in Montgomery was $908 and every aspect of life there was strictly segregated by the Jim Crow laws that ruled the South of the time…including where one could sit on a bus.
Two days after Rosa Parks, already a ten-year veteran of the NAACP, got herself arrested on that bus, plans were launched for a boycott of Montgomery’s buses by the city’s blacks. Ralph Abernathy set about organizing the city’s black clergy behind the effort and focused on recruiting the new young preacher at Dexter. Dr. King resisted, citing the need to tend to Dexter’s annual meeting and preparing the church budget. Abernathy prevailed, however, and, on December 5, 1955, Martin took the reins of the Montgomery Improvement Association and the Montgomery bus boycott. His and our lives would be changed forever.
And our lives – Martin’s and mine – would come together in August 1963, when, beneath a tree near today’s Vietnam Memorial, I listened to Martin’s Dream.
Recalling the youthful optimism of that dream, I shed a tear tonight for Rosa Parks, for Martin, and, yes, myself, as I remembered what Rosa said in 1988: "I am leaving this legacy to all of you ... to bring peace, justice, equality, love and a fulfillment of what our lives should be. Without vision, the people will perish, and without courage and inspiration, dreams will die - the dream of freedom and peace."
That’s a dream we can’t let die, I won’t let die. On my desk, in constant view, there’s a short poem by Langston Hughes. It reads:
I take my dreams and make of them
a bronze vase and a round fountain
with a beautiful statue in its center
and a song with a broken heart
and I ask you:
Do you understand my dreams?
Sometimes you say you do,
and sometimes you say you don’t.
Either way it doesn’t matter.
I continue to dream.
Won’t you, too, continue to dream…of that “fulfillment of what our lives should be"?