On this day in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. This act is often given credit for launching the Civil Rights Movement, but what many forget is that various communities had begun planning for the launch, even before they could see or know what it would look like.
In fact, for generations, people had prepared for just such a moment. They had gotten training in nonviolent resistance. They had come together in community in a variety of ways. They were prepared.
Someone asked me once how I had come to be such an optimist. I've always had an optimistic streak, but frankly, my whole world view shifted when I watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. I fully expected him to be killed, but again, my worldview shifted when I watched South Africans stand in line for days (days!) to elect him president. And he was ready to be president because he had spent those decades in prison thinking about how he would run the country and making plans.
I have seen enormous social change happen in my lifetime--in the face of such evidence, I must agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, who said the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.
Today is also World Aids Day, a somber day that recognizes that this plague has been one of the most destructive diseases in human history. We don't have a cure, although we do drugs that make the disease manageable. We don't have a vaccine. Happily, so far, the disease is fairly preventable. Imagine how this disease would shape us if it was airborne, not blood born.
Those of us who work towards social justice and human dignity for all know how long the struggle might be. We are similar to those medieval builders of cathedral: we may not be around to see the magnificent completion of our vision, but it's important to play our part. In the words of that old Gospel song, we keep our eyes on the prize, our hands on the plow, and hold on.
The same is true in many arenas. Think of our lives as artists: we write poems, not yet knowing how they will work together in a collection. We publish our early poems, even though they may embarrass us later. We hold before us the vision of poets from past generations, hoping that we can rise to their power.
Here's the first poem of mine that was ever published in a non-school publication, The Evening Reader. I look at it now and think of all the ways I would change it. But I offer it the way I wrote it years ago, with its youthful exuberance and anger.
Arcing Towards Justice
Martin Luther King said that the arc
of history is towards justice,
and I must arc
towards justice as well:
ignore the politicians who would leave
children to starve
and adults to rot in prisons.
Some days I slump towards despair;
I don’t believe I can even save
myself, much less others.
Like Harriet Tubman, I cannot tarry
long in the swamps of despair.
I must go back, stretch out my arms, ferry
others to safety:
teach them to write, to analyze,
to dream the world they would want to inhabit.
I must teach them not to suckle
on the hatred spewed
by scared, old, white men
who are losing power, and so spurt poison.
I can build an ark of activism
for the diaspora of the dispossessed,
a sanctuary where we wait
for the old, white men to choke
on their own vituperative, vindictive vitriol.
We won’t even have to remove the mantle
of authority from their cold corpses.
It has been ours all along, from the moment
we claimed it as our own,
decorated it with our own bright threads,
chose our own best ways to wear our multi-hued
mantles, beacons to gleam and glitter
in the dark days of exile,
like comets arcing through the skies,
lighting the way home,
as a legacy of hatred burns
into harmless, intergalactic dust.
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