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Stanford Report, June 18, 1997

Fein's Bacc speech to graduates, part ii: 6/18/


Baccalaureate speech: Leonard Fein

This text is the continuation of the baccalaureate speech delivered by Leonard Fein on June 14.

But, you may say, a Wallenberg, an Abraham - these are giants, and the challenges they faced were the stuff of epic history. We? We are pygmies, and we face ordinary evils, daily insults to decency and injuries to humanity that are far easier to accommodate than to resist. Which brings me to a more recent time and a nearer place. The year is 1955, the date is December 1, and the place is the city of Montgomery in the state of Alabama. On that day in that place, a 42-year-old black seamstress named Rosa Parks left the Montgomery Fair department store late in the afternoon for her regular bus ride home. There were 36 seats on the bus, and all of them were soon filled. Twenty-two Negroes took the rear seats and 14 white people sat in the front. When a 15th white passenger got onto the bus, the driver called for the four black people in the row just behind the 14 seated whites to move to the rear, where they would have to stand. That was not merely the custom in Montgomery; that was the law. And when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the driver, exercising his emergency powers to enforce the segregation codes, arrested her. She was taken to the police station, where she was booked, fingerprinted and jailed.

Martin Luther King Jr. later would describe what Rosa Parks did that day in these words:

Mrs. Parks' refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She was not planted there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that [bus] seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn. She was a victim of both the forces of history and the forces of destiny.

When Rosa Parks' mother learned of her daughter's arrest, she immediately contacted E.D. Nixon, the longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and perhaps the most politically potent black man in Montgomery. Nixon knew well that Rosa Parks was in immediate physical danger, such then being the all too frequent response to violations of the race laws. And Nixon, in turn, called Clifford Durr, a white Southern patrician lawyer, a Rhodes scholar, co-sponsor of the legendary Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Together they went to the jail and posted bond for Mrs. Parks. And together they proposed to Mrs. Parks that here, at last, were the makings of a case that could shatter the laws of segregation throughout the south.

Rosa Parks consulted with her mother and with her husband, a barber who was terrified at the prospect of converting this isolated incident into a political cause. But she nonetheless decided to go forward, and late that Thursday evening, when a black woman named Ann Robinson, a professor of English at Alabama State, the youngest of 12 siblings and the first to have gone to college, learned of what had happened, she convened the Women's Political Council, most of whose members were active in Martin Luther King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and that very night they mimeographed a leaflet that said, "The next time it may be you, or you or you. This woman's case will come up Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses on Monday in protest of the arrest and trial."

On that fateful Monday, Martin and Coretta King were up before dawn. I read to you from Taylor Branch's masterful biography of Dr. King, Parting the Waters:

Coretta [kept] watch at the front window, nervously awaiting the first morning bus. When she saw the headlights cutting through the darkness, she called out to her husband and they watched it roll by together. The bus was empty! The early morning special on the South Jackson line, which was normally full of Negro maids on their way to work, still had its groaning engine and squeaky brakes, but it was an empty shell. So was the next bus, and the next. In spite of the bitter morning cold, their fear of white people and their desperate need for wages, Montgomery Negroes were turning the City Bus Lines into a ghost fleet. King, astonished and overjoyed, jumped into his car to see whether the response was the same elsewhere in the city. It was. He drove around for several hours, watching buses pass by carrying handfuls of white passengers.

Later that same Monday afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded, and Martin King was elected its president. That Monday evening, a crowd of perhaps 10,000 Negroes gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church, and the 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. delivered there his very first political address. "There comes a time," King said, "when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. . . . We are here because we are tired now."

And his tired congregation, swollen to nearly 40,000 former bus riders, walked to work, or stayed home, or rode in one of the 150 cars whose owners lent them to the boycott. Through the cold months of winter, they persisted. When the police began giving the cars in which some of them rode in carpools nuisance tickets, they persisted. When Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested, they persisted, and when his house was bombed, they persisted, and they did not stop even when the entire leadership of the boycott was arrested.

Through the winter, through that spring and summer, through the fall and on into a second winter, for 381 days, the Negroes of Montgomery prayed with their feet. And finally, on Dec. 20, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of the U.S. District Court declaring the laws requiring segregation of the buses unconstitutional.

We've come a long, long way as a nation these 40 years. We're not finished with the desert yet, but we've crossed out of slavery. We've been inspired by the giants - people like Abraham, who died in the fullness of time, and like Raoul Wallenberg, who died in a Soviet prison, and like Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed by an assassin's bullet. But our journey through the desert is a journey of ordinary people, people like Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon and Clifford Durr and Ann Robinson and 40,000 tired Negroes in Montgomery, Alabama, marching on, together. Their footprints in the sands of time are there for us to follow, and there is, there really is, a Promised Land to reach.

The nagging question each of us is bound to ask upon hearing these stories of heroes both exceptional and ordinary is obviously and simply this: What would you have done?

But to that retrospective question, the answer is inherently speculative. We can hope and perhaps believe we would have done what is right, what is decent, what is just, what is redemptive, but we cannot know for sure.

There is, however, one more question, a question whose answer cannot be evaded. It is the question that our faith imposes on us, for as you will recall, the truths of religion are not contained in the answers it offers, but in the questions it asks. Religion does not come to answer questions we cannot otherwise answer; it comes to insist on questions we might not otherwise ask.

Here then, religion's most insistent, most urgent question: What will you do? That question does not call for speculation; it calls for commitment, it calls for action. In these United States, in this year so close to the dawn of a new millennium, 24 percent of the children under the age of 6 live in poverty.

What, dear imminent graduates of this distinguished university, proud fellow citizens of these United States, sturdy companions, if you so will, on a sacred and audacious journey through the desert to the promised land - what will you do? SR