Abraham Cox, a precocious 7-year-old, attends a progressive school in Tempe. On this particular Friday evening, inside Tanner Chapel A.M.E., Abraham's parents watch civil rights heroine Rosa Parks sign copies of her autobiography. Their son is devoting considerable energy to slipping artfully within range of the television cameras taping the event. Though he insinuates himself into the ten o'clock news on KPNX, Abraham misses his media debut; his parents do not allow their son to stay up that late.
When Rosa Parks was Abraham's age, she picked cotton. Later, she, too, attended a progressive center of learning, Alabama's Montgomery Industrial School. Ms. Parks informs us in her book that the school was burned to the ground twice by segregationists enraged that white women were teaching black girls.
The difference in the childhoods of Rosa and Abraham represents the loose coins of hope that we can all put in our pockets. But if there is optimism, there is not rest.
Three weeks from her 80th birthday, Rosa Parks arrived in Arizona to launch yet another drive for a paid Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the only state in the union without such an observance.
At the conclusion of her visit, Ms. Parks picked up texts on cooking and quilting from Houle's Books.
A King holiday is a symbol, but that is all it is. A King celebration provides no relief from poverty, creates no jobs, improves no schools. But if Arizona cannot acknowledge the symbol, how will it ever change the reality?
These days, however, people seem exhausted by the complaints of minorities.
In New Hampshire, Patrick Buchanan fuels his presidential ambitions by claiming the United States would be better off with more English-speaking immigrants and fewer Zulus.
As I sat in Tanner Chapel, I looked at Rosa Parks and the line of black people waiting to touch her, to speak a few words with her.
Zulus indeed. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks ignited the civil rights movement by refusing to sit in the "colored" section at the rear of a Montgomery city bus. She was arrested when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Rosa Parks lived through the murder of four little black girls in a Birmingham church by white supremacists, she survived the march to Selma, she mourned the death of Viola Liuzzo at the hands of the Alabama Klan, she outlived the police department's German shepherds, she cried for Dr. King. Today, nearly four decades later, Rosa Parks cannot be left alone to putter in her old age with her measuring cups and quilting patterns.
She must come to Arizona to shame us. Throughout her stay in Arizona, the press remarked upon the dignity of Rosa Parks. In the ongoing struggle between the races, referring to a black person's dignity is often code-talk that signals the absence of retaliation to insult. Rosa Parks' implacable reserve, however, should not be confused with Gandhian passivity.
In her autobiography, Ms. Parks describes her enormous respect for Dr. King, but she also explains that she was not raised to turn the other cheek.
Describing Malcolm X, Ms. Parks wrote: "Even when he was with the Black Muslims, I didn't disagree with him altogether.
"I remember him talking about violence. He spoke about the expression, `Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,' which is what Jesus Christ said when he was on the cross. Dr. King used to say that black people should receive brutality with love, and I believed that was a goal to work for. But I couldn't reach that point in my mind at all, even though I know that the strategy Dr. King used probably was the better one for the masses of people in Montgomery than trying to retaliate without any weapons or ammunition.
"Malcolm wasn't a supporter of nonviolence, either..."
The image of Rosa Parks expressing admiration for Malcolm X and personal ambivalence toward nonviolence is wildly at odds with the goals of Phoenix officials who brought her to the Valley. Desperate to achieve the paid holiday at the polls in November, civic guardians are keenly sensitive to the uproar that greeted Public Enemy's latest video shortly before Ms. Parks' visit.
Long Island's hip-hop artists produced a tape, "By the Time I Get to Arizona" that portrayed one state official being poisoned while the governor was blown up with a car bomb. The mayhem occurred when the politicians refused to honor Dr. King. The rappers labeled their work a "revenge fantasy."
Arizona reacted to the music by going into convulsions. Radio talk shows, television commentators and newspaper editorials left no pompous platitude unexpressed. Elected officials, professional athletes, concerned citizens, everyone denounced Public Enemy for calling Arizona racist and depicting politicians being terminated with extreme prejudice.
The glandular urge to dissect Public Enemy culminated on the night of January 20 following the MLK holiday protest march in Phoenix. That evening, Nightline was devoted to discussing Public Enemy's video. From Hamburg, Germany, group spokesman Chuck D gave interviews that were broadcast simultaneously on Nightline and MTV.
Before he could be cornered by his interrogators, Chuck D threw them off the scent by suggesting that the federal government ought to give black people their own television station. He made it clear that he wasn't talking about some dumb, low-impact cable outlet, but rather a fourth network to rival ABC, NBC and CBS. This was the least the government could do to atone for the treatment of blacks, said Chuck D.
Kurt Loder of MTV, the network that chose to air and publicize what is described as the most violent video in the music channel's history, absolutely sputtered with indignation.
Chuck D and crew have played the pundits like tin kazoos. When George Herbert Walker Bush aired his racial fantasy video in which white people were told to expect home invasion, rape and murder by the Willie Hortons of this world, Mr. Bush was catapulted into the White House.
But when Public Enemy floats its fantasy, commentators must ponder, Whither the republic?
Coming soon to a PBS outlet near you-MacNeil/Lehrer presents "Public Enemy: Cutting-Edge Zulus or Neo-Liberals With an Attitude?"
I think the idea that Rosa Parks and Chuck D ought to tolerate their situation with "dignity" is remarkable.
What is so threatening about rage? In the 19th century, the descendants of the Mayan Indians were disciplined with the lash in the Yucatan.
The bloodied victims had a proverb that explained their plight.
Los Indios no oyen sino por las nalgas-"The Indians cannot hear except through their backs."
This was not, as you might suspect, a homily of the man with the whip; the 19th-century Mayans felt they deserved to be beaten.
Personally, I prefer the gritty resistance of Rosa Parks. As the trial commenced in Montgomery, Alabama, regarding the bus seat reserved for whites, a young black girl described Ms. Parks to the crowd assembled outside the courthouse, "Oh, she's so sweet," said the youngster. "They've messed with the wrong one now."
And so they had.
If Public Enemy creates a tape in which the governor of Arizona is blown up, you won't hear any gnashing of teeth from me. That particular video isn't any more outrageous than a Steve Benson editorial cartoon. The only qualitative difference is that Benson's viciousness gets nominated for Pulitzers.
Chuck D wants to detonate J. Fife Symington III? Get in line, pal.
Last year Symington was nowhere to be seen during the King holiday protest march. Symington was in a run-off for the governor's seat at the time, and he was still courting the redneck voters who had both defeated the King Day observance at the polls and voted to make English the official language of Arizona.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
This year Governor Symington has pandered to the punch-drunk middle class by offering a minuscule tax break-$60...to the average household, to be financed by the working poor. Symington has proposed that people making $4, $5 and $6 an hour simply give up their government health insurance to pay for the tax cut.
This year Governor Symington walked at the head of the thousands of blacks who marched for a King holiday. Later, he even made a speech to the sea of black humanity assembled at Wesley Bolin Plaza. He knew better than to mention his tax plan. He was all chitlins and commitment.
Chuck D is correct: Los politicos no oyen sino por las nalgas.