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The activism of Rosa Parks and Bernice King

Rest in peace, Rosa. Thousands attended the funeral of Rosa Parks today, and Coretta Scott King, another pillar of the civil rights movement, was unable to attend, as she is still recovering from a stroke. In her place, her daughter Bernice, a preacher, speaker and author herself, delivered a wonderful speech in honor of Parks. Their tribute appeared in USA Today.

A seamstress by trade, Parks was a daily bus rider. But she was also the secretary and youth adviser of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. That organization had protested the inhumane treatment of blacks so often that Parks was well-known to bus drivers, who would sometimes pass her by rather than allow her to board the bus.

But not on Dec. 1, 1955, when the centuries-long yearning of a people for human dignity found its eloquent expression in the words of a woman who had enough: “No, I will not stand up.” And when the driver told her, “I’m going to have you arrested,” she replied, “You may do that.” I have always felt that Parks was sent to us by God because she was exceptionally well-prepared for the role of sparking our movement. Parks possessed remarkable character and an unclouded sense of justice. As one of our supporters chanted when Parks appeared in court to address the charge against her: “They messed with the wrong one now.”

Coretta Scott King and Bernice King

As my husband, Martin Luther King Jr., wrote, Parks’ refusal to cooperate with racism that day was based on “her personal sense of dignity and self-respect … by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.”

Parks provided our movement with a matchless example of the spirit of non-violence. By the sheer force of her will, she set in motion a revolution that continues to reverberate in nation after nation and remains an inspiration to liberation movements everywhere.

…In the firmament of great American women, no star illuminates the path to human liberation more brightly than hers. Let us honor Rosa Parks, not only with words of tribute but also with renewed dedication to end racism, sexism and all forms of bigotry, and by following her still-radiant lodestar to guide us through the freedom struggles of the future.

Does Bernice really believe the words she reads? Her statements in the past have made it clear that what she said today about liberation and ending bigotry definitely does not apply to gay people. Quote from Bernice on her father:

I know deep down in my sanctified soul that he did not take a bullet for same-sex unions.”

Based on what? She was a child when Martin Luther King was shot — her mother knew and understood the man’s views, yet Bernice still cannot reconcile the possibility that her father could embrace the concept of civil equality for gays. Her father had, at his side in the movement, an openly gay man, Bayard Rustin, assisting him in the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that Rosa Parks inspired.

It’s clear that an open and honest discussion about what it is like to be both black and gay needs to occur, because it continues to be an alien concept in too much of the black community.

Coretta Scott King is a strong supporter of gay rights, and denounced a constitutional ban on marriage. “Gay and lesbian people have families and their families should have legal protection, whether by marriage or civil union,” she said in her March 23, 2005 address New Jersey’s Richard Stockton College. “A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages is a form of gay bashing and it would do nothing at all to protect traditional marriages.”

Her son, Martin Luther King III, supported gay rights efforts. As an organizer of the 40th anniversary commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, King made sure gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender groups were invited to participate.

Bernice, and a cousin, Alveda, stand alone in their belief that gays and lesbians should have second-class status in our society, and marched last year in support of “a constitutional amendment to fully protect marriage between one man and one woman.”

I have no idea how Rosa Parks felt about the issue, but it was hard to watch Bernice King up there speaking those words of strength, knowing that they only conditionally apply in her mind. I wonder how many sitting out there, thinking about the courage and activism of Rosa Parks and her role in the civil rights movement, suffer from the same blindness.

Even John Conyers, who I am listening to speaking at the funeral at this moment, mentioned the cause of civil rights now as the struggle for human rights, which can be heard as code for gay rights (which he does support), mentioning the rights of “women and people around the world.” It’s notable that even Conyers is not able to say it aloud. He can mention the politics of the injustice race and class as exposed during Katrina, but to even utter gay rights at this event is perceived to be stepping on a third rail. This is sad.

Bernice at the ironic podium: inclusivity at its apex.

Will the Bernice Kings of the world ever come around to embrace the idea that equality includes fighting for the rights of her lesbian and gay friends, neighbors and loved ones? And more importantly, will their allies in the civil rights struggle willing to talk about this schism?

It certainly requires less bravery to speak out than the risk Rosa Parks took when she got on that bus.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding