Sunday, October 30, 2022

Rosa Parks on Halloween —Murfin Verse Again


Rosa Parks' mug shot in Birmingham.  I echoed this frequently cited quote in slightly different wording, in my poem.

Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 93.  She is revered as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement for sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give her seat to a white man.  A young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected to lead the long campaign that led to one of the first great victories in for the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

After her death that year, she was widely celebrated including the then unheard of honor for a woman and private citizen who never held high civil or military office of being laid in state in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol.  Tens of thousands filed silently by her flag draped coffin on October 31—Halloween.

Rosa Parks in her elder years in Detroit was much honored as the "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement."

I was inspired to write a poem by news coverage of the solemn event. With unwarranted audaciousness, I chose to write in her voice.  I had recently listened to some extended interviews and could clearly hear her soft, breathy tone and gentle Southern accent in my head.  I knew then, and I know now, that there will be some that take great offense—particularly because I have her voice comments about crime and young men in her troubled Detroit neighborhood.  But I had also heard her make similar comments in life.

I have read this work several times and it has appeared in this blog before.  But it seems an apt moment to revisit it.

Tens of thousands waited in long lines to pay their respects to Rosa Parks as the laid in state in the Capital Rotunda on Halloween 2005.

Rosa Parks on Halloween 2005

I didn’t hold truck with Halloween.

I was a good Christian woman.

Ask anyone who ever knew me,

            they will tell you so.


Back in Detroit young fools,

            with pints and pistols

            in their back pockets

            burned the neighborhood

            each Halloween.

Hell Night they called it

            and it was.

Heathen business, I say.


I passed on a few days ago.

Time had whittled me away.

Small as I was to begin with,

            I had no weight left

            to tie me to the earth.


Now I lay in a box on cold marble.

The empty dome of the Capital

            pretends to be heaven above.

A river of faces turns around me,

            gawking, weeping, murmuring.

I see them all.


Maybe those old Druids,

            pagan though they were,

            were right about the air

            between the living and the dead

            being thin this day.


More likely that Sweet Chariot

            has parked somewhere

            and let me linger a while

            just so I could see this

            before swinging low

            to carry me home.


It makes me proud alright.

I was always proud.

Humility before the Lord

            may be a virtue,

            but humility before the master

            was the lash that kept

            Black folks down.

We grew pride as a back bone.


All of this is nice enough.

But let me tell you,

            since I’ve been gone,

            I’ve seen some foolishness

            and heard plenty, too.


They talk all kinds of foolishness

            about that day in Montgomery.

All that falderal about my feet being tired.

It wasn’t my soles that ached.

It was my soul.


It wasn’t any sudden accident either.

No sir, I prayed at the AME church.

I went to the Highland School

            for rabble rousers and trouble makers.

I met with the brothers at the NAACP

            who were a little afraid

            of an uppity woman.


Another thing.

That day was not my whole life.

There were 42 years before

            and fifty more after.

There was plenty of loving and grieving,

            sweat and laughter,

            and always speaking my mind

            very plainly, thank you.


Sure, there were parades.

There were medals and speeches, too.

But there were also long lonely days.


Once, up in Detroit,

            I was beat half to death

            in my own home

            by a wild eyed thug.

He didn’t care if I was

            the Mother of Civil Rights.

He never heard of Dr. King

            or the bus boycott.

All he wanted was my Government money.

            so he could go out

            and hop himself up some more.


That a young Black man

            could do that to an old woman,

            any old woman,

            near broke my heart.

That I could step out my door

            and see copies of him

            lolling on every street corner

            made me mad.


We may have changed the world,

            like they kept saying.

We didn’t change it enough.

We didn’t keep the hope from

            being sucked out of the city.


This business in the Capital   

            is alright, I suppose.

And it was nice enough to be brought

            back to Montgomery, too,

            laid out in the chapel

            of my home church.

But clearly some folks have

            gone out of their minds.


Why, in Houston the other day,

            before a World Series game,

            they had the crowd stand silent

            in my memory.

It was a sea of white faces

            who paid a seamstress’s

            wages for a month for a seat.

It seems the only Black faces

            were on the field

            or roaming the aisles

            selling hot dogs.


And, Lord, the two-faced politicians

            that came out of the woodwork!

The governor of Alabama

            cried crocodile tears

            as if he would not be

            happy to have

            a White Citizen’s Council

            membership card in his wallet

            if it would get him some votes.


Somebody roused George W. from his stupor,

            told him in short easy words

            who I was,

            and shoved him out

            in front of the microphones

            to eulogize me.

He looked uncomfortable and confused.

I understand he had other things

            on his mind.


What these politicians had in mind

            was patting black folks on the head.

“See,” they say, “Mrs. Parks and Dr. King

            took care of everything.

They asked for freedom and we gave it to them

            a long, long time ago.

What more can you ask?

Now stand over there out of the way

            so we can get down to the business   

            of going after real money.”


It plain tires me out.


Little children, Black and white,

            who study me in school,

            do not think the job is over.

Your own bus seat must be won every day.

And while you are at it,

            have the driver change the route.


—Patrick Murfin

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