Out of sight, but still an audience to history

Published 10:49 am Thursday, January 22, 2009

By Staff
"My soul looks back and wonders how I got over."
– Clara Ward
And I wish Rosa was here.
She made history by refusing to give up her seat.
It was just over 53 years ago, on a cold December night in Montgomery and something got into her that said, Enough, no more.
No more laughing when she was not amused, no more scratching where she did not itch, no more giving up a seat she had paid for with U.S. currency earned from the sweat of her own brow, just because the man who wanted the seat was white and she was not.
No more. Call the police, bus driver.
Rosa would be sitting there when they arrived.
I wish Rosa could be here to see Barack Obama seated before the U.S. Capitol, waiting for history to call his name.
Call it a lament for the long departed. Ever since that day in November when what could not happen did, I've repeatedly had occasion to catch myself in the act of wishing so-and-so could be here to see what has transpired.
Some of the names are personal – a little white girl came up to my mother once and tried to rub off the darkness her grandmother had told her was dirt; I keep wishing Mom could be here.
Most of the names are historical – heroes of the civil rights years, both sung and unsung.
I wish Mother Pollard, the old woman who said during the Montgomery bus boycott, "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested," could be here.
I wish Fannie Lou Hamer, whose heart, but never her spirit, was broken by Mississippi intransigence, could be here.
I wish Emmett Till, Jimmie Lee Jackson, Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo and all the other martyrs were here.
And I wish Malcolm and ol' Bull were here.
Theophilus Eugene Connor – they called him Bull – was the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala., who brought tanks, police dogs and high-pressure hoses to the streets because he didn't believe America's promises ever should be extended to all Americans.
Malcolm X was a prophet of black rage who rejected racial integration because he didn't think America's promises ever would be extended to all Americans.
I wish those men, who agreed on America's limitations if on nothing else, could be here to see that they were wrong, here for this startling moment when America affirms her defining promise, the one that begins with truths held self-evident.
And yes, when we honor his memory and his martyrdom, I wish Martin Luther King were here to see a Dream coming true.
Did he expect this moment?
Did he feel it coming as he prophesized from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?
Could he see it from where he stood on the Mountaintop?
I suppose it's only natural to be caught looking back as America plunges forward upon a milestone.
Only natural to think of how much and how many and how long it took to get here.
Only natural to be thankful for what you have lived to see and to lament those who did not.
All those years of struggle, all those hymns and promises and prayers and days when you didn't know where to go or how to get there but only that you had to move. And now look where it has led.
You mourn those who did not get to see, but you also realize the gospel song is wrong, because your soul looks back and knows exactly how you got over.
You got over because of Fannie's grit and Malcolm's rage, because of Rosa's stubbornness and Emmett's blood. You got over because of Martin's dream.
They are dead now, but those things they gave are deathless.
They live through you, passing down to generations not yet born – something to keep you moving when you don't know where you're going, or how, only that you have to go.
You close your eyes, wishing all those people were here.
Then your eyes come open and you realize.
They are.