By Kevin C. Peterson
For Rosa Parks, black lives mattered.
Parks 60 years ago today became an irreplaceable icon of the modern civil rights movement. Her decision on Dec. 1, 1955, to defy the city's segregation laws launched the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and the majestic career of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I knew Mrs. Parks personally," attorney Fred Gray told me last week. Gray was Parks' lawyer during the Montgomery boycott. "When Mrs. Parks was arrested, we had had lunch that day. For almost a year , she would come to my office during lunch hours and we would share stories ... and plan. We would talk about the problems in Montgomery. And she was well-prepared when the [protest] opportunity presented itself."
Like Parks, Gray - who was only 25 at the time - was determined to fight Jim Crow laws that denied black Americans civil rights such as public accommodations and voting. Gray participated in the meetings that elected King the movement's leader, insisting that King was the "right man at the right place at the right time."
Parks was found guilty in court of refusing to relinquish her seat on a segregated bus, but her action sparked a yearlong protest that inspired a decade of national protests and civil rights battles.
"We were interested in the community being involved in the process," Gray said. "And as a result of that, it ended up with people all over the country seeing that if 40,000 African Americans in Montgomery could solve their problems on the buses by coming up with a plan and working together, then maybe we can do it too."
Decades later, Gray's reflections remind us of the current Black Lives Matter movement as tension mounts across the country between law enforcement and blacks.
Last week in Chicago, hundreds protested after the release of video footage showing the police shooting of Laquan McDonald last year. Days earlier, five Black Lives Matter protesters were shot in Minneapolis during a demonstration over the police shooting of Jamar Clark last month.
Gray, 84, is pleased about the racial victories won over the decades but says he is also despondent about how racism persists.
He is disappointed that blacks still seem disparate targets of hate. He is saddened about the need for the Black Lives Matter movement because it reminds him of how much civil rights protests remain necessary.
Rightfully so. The current generation of protesters sees no discernible difference between the hate represented in some of the nation's police forces and the vitriol expressed in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s. They acknowledge the progress forged by the efforts of past civil rights heroes like Parks and King, but they also see how slowly racial attitudes have eroded on the institutional level.
"We have laws now on the books that need to be enforced," Gray said. "But the question is what about these current problems - including all these problems we have with black males being killed by police officers and all of the related problems?"
Gray is gathering lawyers in Montgomery this week to reflect on the boycott ignited by Parks six decades ago and is convening conversations among the country's top civil rights lawyers in Montgomery, Selma, and Tuskegee. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will attend the events.
Gray says his meeting is "not a celebration." He says he doesn't want to romanticize the past or retell old civil rights battle stories. Instead, he wants to talk about how the past can inform the present. He wants to emphasize how civil disobedience, the law, and massive civic engagement remain the tools of social change.
He is looking, he says, for an opportunity to "remind us how people can be part of a movement."
Kevin C. Peterson is a senior fellow at the Center for Collaborative Leadership at the University of Massachusetts Boston (www.umb.edu/leaders) and the founder of the New Democracy Coalition (www.thenewdemocracycoalition.org). email@example.com