Here’s an essay I wrote a few years ago. Thought you might like it. 🙂

Rosa Parks Redux

For much of the time I worked as a D.C. tour guide, I lived downtown, and — thanks to Washington’s clean, convenient Metrorail subway — didn’t actually need a car to get where I needed to go. On the other hand, one difficulty that we guides often faced (until recently) was early meeting times on the weekends, when the Metrorail didn’t open until 8:00 a.m.. (It was one of our pet peeves, and you bet we loved to gripe about it amongst ourselves!)

Thus it happened one Saturday morning, several years ago, that I needed to take a city bus to get to my meeting point by 8:00. I can’t recall now just where I was headed –- somewhere in Georgetown, I think — but I walked five blocks to Independence Avenue and caught the even 30’s bus line toward the northwestern end of town.

For 7:15 on a Saturday morning, it seemed to me that quite a lot of people were aboard, and there was no seat available anywhere in the bus. So I squeezed myself and my overnight bag into the area by the rear stairwell, and hung on as best I could to the slippery stainless-steel vertical bar.

Here I should mention that the population of the nation’s capital city proper, some 572,000 people according to the 2000 census, is about two-thirds African-American, black, people of color, or whatever term you like best. Never was that fact more clear to me than on this morning.

For, as I glanced idly up and down the length of the bus, it dawned on me that mine was the only white face anywhere.

And I was the only person standing up.

Wow, I gasped inwardly. Times have changed.

Was I a bit uncomfortable at first, a bit taken aback? You bet I was. Is that a shameful thing to feel? I didn’t know what to do or how to act. Many eyes were suddenly upon me, and I was the minority! The outsider. Even the intruder, I worried.

I thought of a lady named Rosa Parks, who, way back in the ‘fifties, was tired – in body, perhaps, but certainly in spirit – one December evening, when she boarded a green-and-yellow bus in Montgomery, Alabama, for the ride home from her seamstress job. That day, she’d had enough of being treated as a lower form of human. She didn’t see any earthly reason why she shouldn’t take a seat when one was available, or give it up for another just because he happened to be white, no matter how unfair the rules of her time and place.

She needed to stand up for her dignity by remaining seated, and in affirming her right as a human to do so, she changed our country.

In Mrs. Parks’s time in the South, one of the people sitting on that bus with me would have been required by local law to vacate his or her seat so that I could sit instead. How insane is that? But so it was.

I decided that I didn’t mind standing up one bit.

The gift I was given, for a few minutes that morning as we bounced along, was the chance to appreciate what Mrs. Parks did, and why. And to take in the reality she made possible.

For I saw dignified, twinkle-eyed elderly men on that bus who, I felt sure, were going to visit their grandchildren for the day, and women who slumped sleepily, trying to stay awake on their way to a second job. I noticed several tough-looking workers with strong, calloused hands, and a couple of teenagers who smiled shyly at me as if they, too, appreciated the utter reversal of some horrid history that we all embodied in that small space, in that tiny jewel of time.

I found myself, irresistibly, smiling back. What I saw was a wonderful, complex, never-happen-again miracle. We were all equal, the way we always should have been.

I spent the rest of my ride praying wordlessly that no one would get up and offer me a seat.

No one did.