TCS Daily


Courage and Principle

By Duane D. Freese - November 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Sometimes the greatest courage is shown by doing the simplest things.

Rosa Parks proved that when she said no to giving up her seat to a white man in the colored section of a Montgomery, Ala., bus in December 1955.

Nearly a half century later her body lay in state under the nation's Capitol Dome demonstrating the importance of her courage in taking such a simple act.

After all, what was she being asked to give up? A seat. Subway riders from London to Tokyo stand all the time. Men give up -- or used to give up -- their seats to women at the nod of a head. So giving up one's seat and standing in a public conveyance is no big deal -- in most situations.

But this was a big deal. Why? Because if it was no big deal to have to stand why did the white man demand to be seated?

His action asserted a terrible societal convention of the old South nearly a century after the end of a civil war -- that no black person had a right that a white man was bound to respect, even in inconsequential things such as standing in a bus.

In demanding the seat in the so-called colored-section of the bus, the man and the bus company in acceding to it further proved that the doctrine of "separate but equal" that had existed before outlawed by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 was a lie. The demand for separation in itself created an entitlement that violated notions of fundamental fairness and fundamental rights.

But what was the fundamental right that Rosa Parks, by staying seated in the face of a threat of arrest and jail, was asserting? As she told National Public Radio in a 1992 interview, "I did not want to be mistreated, I did not want to be deprived of a seat that I had paid for."

In short, Rosa Parks was asserting a property right. She had purchased her ticket, paid for by her own labor. She had boarded the bus first. She even sat in the section designated for her. And nobody had a right to take her seat away.

In that regard, Rosa Parks' simple act of defiance was as profound a declaration of property rights and of freedom as any in the advance of human history.

Her limitation on the bus system's power to arbitrarily take her seat away was of the same stripe as the barons at Runnymeade asserting against King John with the Magna Carte that "[n]o freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised [i.e. dispossessed of property] ... except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of land."

Her rejection of the bus system's attempt to dispossess her of her seat was in line with what John Locke in his Social Contract theory would argue was the right to object by any individual denied his basic property rights, which governments are originated to defend not offend. Or, as Adam Smith in Lectures on Jurisprudence, declared:

        "The first and chief design of every system of government is to maintain justice: to prevent 
        the members of society from encroaching on one another's property, or seizing what 
        is not their own. The design here is to give each one the secure and peaceable possession 
        of his own property."

Her action, in short, was in keeping with the founders of the nation, when they rejected the boarding of British troops in people's homes and objected to "taxation without representation." It is what Thomas Jefferson declared as the reason for the nation's separation, that King George III was violating the natural law that "all men are created equal, endowed by their creators with certain inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." What happiness can be pursued if government can simply take away what by right is yours?

And her courageous act completed what Abraham Lincoln had argued in his First Debate with Stephen Douglas when he said that "there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man."

So, Rosa Parks by keeping her seat was doing something that was essentially, if not quintessentially, of the American experience, with her defiance being of kind with those of the nation's founders.

But it certainly didn't come without price. Not only was Parks arrested, but she lost her job, and she had to ultimately leave Birmingham for Detroit to escape the physical threats posed by people who also burned black churches and attacked the homes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon, one of Parks' attorneys and organizers of the bus boycott.

So, it took great courage for her to say no -- and others to demonstrate on her behalf -- rightfully earning all of the gratitude and honor expressed by the nation at Parks' death.

But here's a simple question.

What if, instead of a dignified black woman weighing barely 100 pounds, Rosa Parks had been a muscular young black man, Robert Parks? Or what if she had been an addict, or alcoholic? Or what if the person asking for a seat rather than a white man had been an elderly woman? Would the principle that this person had bought her ticket and had a right to keep her seat have been upheld? Would the cause of freedom been as readily advanced?

In the Parks' case itself there is reason to believe that the person on whose behalf the case was brought has come to matter almost as much as the principle she upheld by her brave action.

Years after the incident Parks' herself, though, had to debunk another myth that seemed to make her even more sympathetic -- that she was physically worn out after a day of work, as if she was somehow handicapped. In her auto biography, My Story, she wrote:

        "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was 
        not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was 
        not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. 
        No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

And consider the actions of the NAACP attorneys who helped organize the boycott and ultimately brought Parks case to the Supreme Court, which then struck down racial discrimination in all public transportation.

Two other women had been arrested for not giving up their seats prior to Rosa Parks. An 18-year-old civil rights protestor, Mary Louise Smith, and a pregnant, unwed 15-year-old, Claudette Colvin, had refused to give up their seats and been arrested and fined earlier. But the NAACP rejected making their cases the cause of the boycott and a court fight because their personal circumstances, at that time, seemed more open to manipulation by the press and might have seemed unworthy in a fight over publicity.

Parks, 42, "a humble seamstress," was simply a more sympathetic victim.

It is a human trait to sympathize with a noble underdog -- but it is also a problem for a free society. For it amounts to acting on prejudice rather than on principle, which is just what advocates of civil rights should be against.

Charles Payne, a commentator on Fox News and CEO of Wall Street Strategies, this week came to the defense of two groups that liberals just love to hate -- oil and pharmaceutical companies.

Payne, who has been described by the liberal blog Newshounds as "the Fox token-minority-who-supports Bush," (how else are you going to keep minorities in the Democratic camp except through sophisticated racial epithet?) argued on Tuesday that threats, such as Dennis Kucinich's Gas Price Spike Act of 2005 to relieve oil companies of their profits and those against pharmaceutical companies to violate their patents on drugs against such epidemics as avian flu, amount to almost a communist attack on property rights.

One doesn't need to go that far, but there is a tendency to forget what it is that Rosa Parks -- and before her our forefathers were fighting for -- when the "victims" of the theft are not sympathetic. It is why, when such things are proposed, that we need our courts to protect our individual rights, but it is also why we need to ourselves look at cases in their simplest terms -- to seek out the principle that we are acting upon, and recognize the rights we may undermine.

As Lincoln enunciated in a letter to Joshua Speed in 1855, "How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

Rosa Parks with her simple act helped lead us away from there. Thank God most of us came to admire both her courage and her principle.

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