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Archive for Saturday, March 25, 2006

No pardon necessary for Rosa Parks

March 25, 2006

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Sometimes, I wonder about the white man.

That's all the identification history has ever given him. We know the name of the man who was driving the bus that evening: James F. Blake. We know the names of the Montgomery, Ala., policemen who answered Blake's summons after a "colored" passenger refused to surrender her seat: Officers Mixon and Day. And of course we know the name of the passenger: Rosa Parks.

But the past has closed like muddy water around the identity of "the white man" whose arrival on the bus precipitated Parks' arrest that December night a little more than 50 years ago. I've read reconstructions of the arrest, studied contemporaneous news accounts, looked at the police report. But I've never seen his name.

I've always been curious, though, always wondered who he was and what he felt that night the 20th century turned, as if on a hinge. Was he a fire-breathing segregationist, mortally affronted by the nerve of this tiny colored woman in wanting to keep her seat? Was he just some guy who accepted the privileges the law conferred upon him without thinking much about right or wrong? Was he a man who saw segregation for the idiocy it was, but kept quiet, didn't rock the boat because what could he do, one man against The Way Things Were?

There's a lawmaker in Alabama who wants the state to pardon Rosa Parks for violating The Way Things Were. State Rep. Thad McClammy, a black Democrat from Montgomery, has sponsored a bill that would excuse Parks and perhaps hundreds of other blacks who violated Alabama's segregation laws. People who had the temerity to sit where they were not supposed to sit, enter public doors they were not allowed to enter, drink at fountains from which they were forbidden to drink, would be officially forgiven by the state.

The idea has engendered a lively debate.

A recent Associated Press report quotes a woman who was arrested in 1951 after going to the front of the bus to request a transfer. She approves of the proposal because her conviction has caused her difficulty over the years when she applied for government jobs. On the other hand, the pastor of Parks' old church wants to know why people who protested unjust laws need pardoning.

It's a good question. I don't question the noble intentions of those who support this legislation. I can appreciate the inconvenience - and embarrassment - a law-abiding person feels at having a conviction on her record. Even a conviction that cost only a $10 fine half a century ago.

But I wonder if the supporters of this bill truly appreciate the moral implications of what they are asking. You only need to be excused, forgiven, pardoned, when you've done wrong. And while it's true that Parks and others did break the law, that's not the same as doing wrong.

Martin Luther King was fond of proclaiming that under an unjust law, the only place for a just man was jail. I believe it was also King who pointed out that everything Adolf Hitler did was legal, but none of it was right.

Maybe "the white man" knew all that. Maybe that's why he disappeared so readily into anonymity. Maybe he understood that he was law abiding, but also wrong - symbol of a rotting system at worst, moral coward at best.

By contrast, look at the mug shot of Rosa Parks taken during the bus boycott touched off by her arrest. You can search it out at Wikipedia.com. Her gaze is level and direct, her expression one of calm resolve. Hers is not the face of a woman embarrassed or plagued by doubt.

Rather, what you see in that picture is a woman who is at peace, having finally taken a momentous step.

Which is why it's irrelevant whether Alabama pardons her. The real question is, did she ever pardon Alabama?

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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