After the farewells

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Perhaps the most amazing thing about Rosa Parks’ funeral was the parade of speakers. I’m willing to bet good money that this will be the last time any of us sees such a diverse collection of assorted bigwigs on the same stage at the same time for any occasion.

Who would have ever imagined the day would come when you could attend one function and see and hear Minister Louis Farrakhan, Bishop TD Jakes, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Bernice King, SCLC’s Joseph Lowery, former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaragosa, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Michigan senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Bill Ford, Aretha Franklin and international mezzo-soprano Brenda Jackson?

We may not have reached the Promised Land yet, but to bring all those folks together in Detroit — the blackest big city in America — to pay tribute to the life of one black woman, says to me that we damned sure must have overcome something these past few decades. With all due respect to Mrs. Parks and her family, and to the near-sacred nature of the occasion, this was without a doubt the best show in town. This was a celebration unlike any Detroit has ever seen, since I don’t know when, and may never see again, and it was handled with a level of grace and decorum that should have made all Detroiters proud.

But that was last week.

Today what sticks in my mind the most is what Jesse Jackson said about the importance of voting — and of Detroiters going to the polls to vote. Today, we either have Mayor Freman Hendrix or Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. At the time I was writing this, the polls showed that the race was becoming too close to call. When Hendrix walked away with the primary in August, only 22 percent of registered Detroit voters even bothered to show up at the polls. That’s hardly a mandate. That’s “Who gives a damn?”

“If 50 percent of you all show up at the polls next Tuesday, then I’ll know you got the message,” said Jackson, who reminded the audience that not showing up at the polls in Detroit was what got us 12 years of Gov. John Engler. Case closed.

The message is that if we as Detroiters could turn out in such huge numbers to honor the acknowledged mother of the civil rights movement, but then could not take the time to honor such a crucial component of what the civil rights struggle was all about, then we were just wasting our time — and we disrespected the memory of Mrs. Parks. As Sharpton pointed out earlier, it’s easy to come out to honor our dead heroes because the dead can’t ask anything of you. They can’t ask you to participate in the struggle, or to join an organization. They can’t chastise you for letting them down. It’s easy to celebrate the honored dead because it’s the last time we’ll ever have to be bothered with them.

I’ve said in earlier columns that many of these folks out here professing to be down with Malcolm X, or who call themselves followers of Christ, or any other major historical mover and shaker, would never have called themselves anything of the sort if they’d been forced to actually deal with any one of these movers and shakers while they were alive and could have called them to task. Now that Rosa Parks is dead, many who haven’t the faintest clue about the true nature — and the true price — of sacrifice and selflessness will no doubt try to assume her mantle and say they’re being true to her legacy.

Just as certain Republicans have worked so hard to pervert the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King by hilariously claiming that their stance against affirmative action is directly in keeping with what King stood for, stay tuned for the next false prophet to stand up and begin to babble mindlessly about how Mrs. Parks would have endorsed something that she never, ever would have endorsed in life. It’s called pimping the dead, and unless those who are truly committed to the honest preservation of her memory remain vigilant, it’s only a matter of time before she will no longer be recognizable to any of us who know what the woman was actually about.

So, yes, Detroiters deserve to be proud of how we honored Mrs. Parks last week. It was a remarkable event, and anyone who was fortunate enough to actually get inside the sanctuary of Greater Grace Temple and witness the spectacle up close and personal can testify that it was an incredibly electric and emotional occasion. But anyone who knows Detroit also knows that we’re remarkably good at celebrations. We know how to throw a party and how to put on a show, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a time and place for everything, and last week was the perfect time and place for such a celebration.

It was hard not to be moved when seeing the long line of people outside Greater Grace Temple, many of whom had waited out there since the early morning hours in the cold. It was inspiring to hear their stories as they were interviewed throughout the day and on into the night about what Rosa Parks meant to them, and to hear from the youngsters about why their parents had forced them to come and be a part of history. I was tired just after sitting in one spot for more than five hours (I left about an hour before it ended), and as a member of the press, I didn’t have to stand in any long line. So I was beyond amazed at the endurance of those who stayed until the very end, then followed the spectacular procession all the way to the cemetery on Woodlawn. I loved the warmth of spirit that could be felt inside, and the feeling of community. Just the smiles that all of us shared on the shuttle that ran from the nearby Kmart parking lot to the church and back was enough to make you feel like this just might be one of the best days of your life. These weren’t just happy smiles, these were smiles of pure, unadulterated joy. Several women even spontaneously broke into song on the ride over, and that only seemed to make the smiles shine brighter.

We were on our way to pay tribute to Mother Rosa, to see her on her way to take a much-deserved rest in the Promised Land that King spoke of four decades ago, right here in Detroit at Cobo Hall, before moving on to deliver the same “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital. On this day, the troubles of Detroit seemed mercifully distant, kept at bay by the power of our love for the woman whose selfless act had moved us all — black and white alike — so much closer to freedom and equality.

But that was last week.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
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