Leonard Pitts Jr.: Civil rights leaders didn’t need guns

02/04/2013 12:00 AM

02/01/2013 7:39 PM

Rush Limbaugh thinks John Lewis should have been armed.

“If a lot of African-Americans back in the ’60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma?” he said recently on his radio show, referring to the 1965 voting rights campaign in which Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “If John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?”

Right. Because a shoot-out between protesters and state troopers would have done so much more to secure the right to vote.

Incredibly, that’s not the stupidest thing anyone has said recently about the civil rights movement.

No, that distinction goes to one Larry Ward, who claimed in an appearance on CNN that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have supported Ward’s call for a Gun Appreciation Day “if he were alive today.” In other words, the premier American pacifist of the 20th century would be singing the praises of guns, except that he was shot in the face with one 45 years ago.

Thus do social conservatives continue to rewrite the inconvenient truths of African-American history, repurposing that tale of incandescent triumph and inconsolable woe to make it useful within the crabbed corners of their failed and discredited dogma. This seems an especially appropriate moment to call them on it. Not simply because this is Black History Month, but because Monday is the centenary of a signal event within that history.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born 100 years ago. You know her better by her married name – Rosa Parks, the quiet, unassuming 42-year-old seamstress from Montgomery, Ala., who ignited the civil rights movement in December 1955 when bus driver J.F. Blake ordered her to give up her seat for a white man and she refused.

Doubtless, Limbaugh thinks she should have shot Blake instead, but she did not. She only waited quietly for police to come arrest her. Thus began the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Though legend would have it that Parks, who died in 2005, refused because her feet were tired, the truth, she always said, was that it was not her body that was fatigued. “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in” to a system that judged her, as a black woman, unworthy of a seat on a public bus.

Years later King, the young preacher who led the boycott, would phrase that philosophy of refusal in terms of rhetorical elegance: “Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

Parks put it more simply that day in 1955: “No,” she said.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., which counts Rosa Parks’ bus among its holdings, has persuaded the Senate to designate Monday a “National Day of Courage” in her honor. Full disclosure: I gave a compensated speech for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights at the museum last month. While there, I had the distinct privilege of climbing onto that bus.

Sitting in that sacred space, it is easy to imagine yourself transported back to that fateful moment of decision. Fifty-eight years later, those of us who are guardians – and beneficiaries – of African-American history, who live in a world transformed by the decisions of Rosa, Martin, Fannie Lou, Malcolm, Frederick, W.E.B., Booker T. and a million others whose names history did not record, now have decisions of our own to make. One of them is this:

What shall we say to conservatives who seem hell-bent on rewriting, disrespecting and arrogating that history? Many sharp rebukes come to mind, but none of them improves on the brave thing said by a tired woman born a hundred years ago this week.

No.

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