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The Rev. Byron Williams
Published: 09 November 2005

I was sitting at my computer when a friend emailed the news that Rosa Parks had passed. When I reacted, my 10-year-old son Malik asked if something was wrong.

After explaining the reason for my reaction, he asked: "You mean the lady who wouldn't give up her seat?" At his young age, he may have captured the life of Rosa Parks with an uncomplicated rhetorical question.

Rosa Parks was the midwife who delivered the Civil Rights Movement to the nation's conscience. In doing so, her simple act of defiance became the springboard for civil disobedience that has been replicated around the world.

Opposition to the war in Vietnam, the women's movement, anti-Apartheid efforts and Tiananmen Square can trace their defiance back to that historic evening of Dec. 1, 1955.

But to describe, as I have, Parks' actions as "simple" is to view her actions through the luxury of hindsight and ignorance.

Her act of defiance was anything but simple. She put her life in jeopardy. Beyond the Jim Crow laws, southern Whites were not duty bound to affirm the humanity of any Negro.

By sitting down, Parks stood up for American democracy in ways that not even the President of the United States or Congress was prepared to do at that time.

Parks has understandably received commemorations befitting her national-treasure status. Her passing has sparked commentary of adoration from conservatives and liberals alike.

Since her death, this former recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom has perhaps received every commemoration from this country except the one that matters most — replication of her actions.

Imagine if today's Democratic Party had followed Parks' lead these past four-plus years? They would have spent more time asking tough questions, providing the country with a clear choice. They would have focused more on demonstrating their patriotism than pontificating about it by matching slogans with the opposition party.

If Republicans had been inspired by Parks, would conservatism be as reckless and undisciplined as it currently stands? Would the deficit be as large? Would right-wing religious zealots have so much influence over the president's judicial nomination process?

Suppose we the people took Parks' action seriously? I doubt that a majority of the Americans would have allowed fear to overcome pragmatism.

Without the burden of fear, would we would have stood for the USA PATRIOT Act, the bankruptcy legislation, tax cuts ad nauseam, runaway deficits or a preemptive war complete with flawed intelligence?

If we had removed fear as our primary motivator, we would not have needed Hurricane Katrina to realize that we are as vulnerable as we were on Sept. 11.

To have followed in Parks' footsteps is to live with the possibility of giving something up. Parks' gallant actions cost her and her husband employment in Montgomery Ala., causing them to emigrate to Detroit.

This country has required sacrifice from two groups: the poor and members of the armed forces and their families. The only thing that elected officials in both parties, with few exceptions, have sacrificed is courage.

As Martin Luther King Jr. recalls in his book, "Stride Toward Freedom," to understand Parks' actions is to realize "that eventually the cup of endurance runs over and human personality cries out: 'I can't take it any longer.' "

The moment that we reach that threshold is when we begin to follow the path blazed by "the lady who wouldn't give up her seat."

The Rev. Byron Williams is pastor of Resurrection Community Church in Oakland, Calif.

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