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Educator: Rosa Parks' passing a time for renewed effort

Monday, October 31, 2005

If the civil rights movement were to build its version of Mt. Rushmore, there might be some debate as to whose the fourth face would be. The first three, though, would undoubtedly be Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks who died this week in Detroit at age 92.

It was Parks who galvanized the civil rights movement from its feelings of futility and lethargy and made Parks a household word when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man 50 years ago in Montgomery, Ala.

It was after Parks' arrest and $14 fine for violating Montgomery's racist law requiring blacks to give up their seats to whites that Rev. King organized the more than year-long boycott of the city's bus system. Parks' act is seem as the pivotal event leading to the 1963 freedom march on Washington, where King was immortalized in his "I Have a Dream" speech, and the Civil Rights Act which was passed the next year.

Leon Williams, director of intercultural programs at Buena Vista University, Tuesday reviewed Parks' legacy and how people of color must carry on her torch if freedom is to prevail for all Americans.

"We'll have to go through a lot of soothing," Williams said of Parks' passing. He said students, and all youth people, need to "receive the torch and again to raise their own expectations" of what equality between the races should be. "It's our responsibility now."

"Many people said that her action led to the ignition of the civil rights movement," Williams said, noting that Parks' activism also had a profound impact on the women's rights movement.

It would be a mistake to assume that the fight for equality is over with Parks' passing, though, Williams said.

"I think we have become very lethargic about our history," Williams said. "There's a lot of things that tend to not be uncovered."

Williams used the response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina as an example of continuing racism.

"That's nothing new," Williams said. He fears that the gains that African-Americans have made due to efforts by Parks and others have been slipping. Penal system statistics, teen pregnancies, and homicides in the African-American community show that "this thing has come full circle," Williams said.

Even with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that overturned the earlier Plessy v. Fergusson ruling that said "separate but equal" schools were fair, little was done to advance integration in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

"We're closing a chapter in a book" with Parks' passing, Williams said. "Unless we open the book again, it's going to come back to visit us again. This thing will have a domino effect."

Williams called for a renewed vigilance by all Americans to combat racism's legacy.

"What is our moral, social, and political responsibility to our community," Williams asked. "We have to reconnect with our past. Right now we're living in the days of disconnect. And we need to reconnect. Many of our people have no idea who Rosa Parks was and the influence that she had in that short period of her life. Without Rosa Parks, a lot of the civil rights movement has been mute."

Williams held up African-American women as a model of emulation for the entire civil rights movement.

"Without the support of Coretta Scott King encouraging him, would there have been a Dr. King," Williams said. "We must reconnect, recommit, to the morals of our country."

Williams said Storm Lake has come a long way in embracing diversity since he first came to the community in 200. However, he said much has yet to be done.

"It's not a hill, but a mountain," Williams said. He said one of the reasons he and his family remain in Storm Lake is to see the community's diversity initiative succeed.

"Our work is not complete here at the university and the community," Williams said. "Storm Lake is going to have to continue to do some different things to attract and keep diversity. It's beyond people of color. You have to make yourself part of the formula."

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