Chalk up a nice win and a bizarre moment for civil rights on Capitol Hill yesterday.
Supporters unveiled a life-size statue of Rosa Parks in the U.S. Capitol, providing a reason for all Americans to cheer. The ceremony shows that Congress -- while stupefied by its own challenges -- at least is willing to honor someone who stepped up and took on the challenges of her time.
Parks, of course, was the black seamstress who ignited the civil rights movement in 1955 when she refused to follow local law and relinquish her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. In so doing, she accepted some very visceral risks of leadership.
Her civil disobedience wasn’t spontaneous. She was hand-picked for that moment by the incomparable E.D. Nixon, a worker for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and other Montgomery residents. She was willing to put her life on the line for a cause greater than herself.
"Without Rosa Parks, there would not have been a Martin Luther King Jr.," Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights veteran, once told me. King, then a little-known Montgomery pastor, "was a reluctant leader." But Parks inspired him, and so did the bus boycott she started.
King decided to join the cause, and the civil rights movement was born.
Such courage presents a stark contrast to the shabby helplessness we’re now seeing in Congress, where members are afraid to carry out even the most fundamental duties of their offices.
They won’t make a deal on federal fiscal policy because they don’t want to risk losing their seats or angering constituents or getting shut out by political patrons. A deal would mean compromise and there's always a downside to that. Better to honor heroes of the past.
Across the street from the Capitol, meanwhile, near Constitution Avenue, another branch of government was providing its own moments of astonishment and alarm. As the Supreme Court heard arguments about the 2006 renewal of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Antonin Scalia insisted that Congress’ approval -- by 98-0 in the Senate and 360-33 in the House -- did not mean Congress really supported the law.
Why? Because Congress was secretly afraid to vote against the “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” Scalia said. He seemed to be arguing from the highest bench in the land that the ability of eligible minority citizens to vote was a “racial entitlement.”
The ugliness of Scalia’s implication was something I think Rosa Parks would have recognized in a heartbeat. There is no such thing as the past, the Southern novelist William Faulkner once said, and I believe him.