Remembering Rosa Parks

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Hello. This is Senator Barack Obama and today is Wednesday, October 26, 2005. This also happens to be my grandmother's birthday. Madeline Dunham in Honolulu, Hawaii, I want to wish you a happy birthday if you are listening on your iPod.

Two nights ago I received the news of the loss of a genuine American hero. As many of you know now, Rosa Parks died Monday at her home in Detroit. As it so happened I was giving a speech the next day on education policy and was reading a chapter out of Jonathan Kozol's new book "The Shame of the Nation" in which he talks about his recent travels to schools across the country and how fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education we have an education system in this country that's still visibly separate and painfully unequal. So, Kozol talks about his trip to Freemont High School in Los Angeles and he meets a couple of girls there to talk to them about what it's like to be in the school system. And one girl starts talking about how she was taking hairdressing again. She had already taken a hairdressing course once, because apparently there were actually two different levels of hairdressing offered in the school -one was hairstyling, the other was hair-braiding. And her friend, a girl named Mireya, is listening as her friend is telling the story and suddenly Mireya begins to cry. And when asked what's wrong she says, "I don't want to take hairdressing. I do not need sewing either. I knew how to sew. My mother is a seamstress in a factory. I'm trying to go to college. I don't need to sew to go to college. My mother sews. I hoped for something else." "I hoped for something else." That's what Mireya says. And as I was delivering this speech and an excerpt of this book that Jonathan Kozol has written I was reminded both of how far we have come and how far we have to go.

Rosa Parks was a seamstress despite the fact that she had trained at a teachers college. She had experienced the full brunt of Jim Crowe. She had been forced to attend a rundown one-room schoolhouse because she couldn't attend the well-built and well-funded white school nearby. She had to work cleaning the classrooms of the teachers college that she went to because she didn't have the fees. And once she got her teaching certificate she ended up working as a seamstress and a housekeeper instead of using her formidable intellect. And so it is important for us to recognize that times have changed. That we have different opportunities now then we had then because of the enormous courage of this individual woman and women like her all through the south who were willing to walk instead of ride a bus on behalf of justice. Despite being tired, despite having spent the whole day doing someone else's laundry and looking after somebody else's children, this seemingly ordinary woman was able to bring about extraordinary transformation and, in that sense, represented the multitude of people from all walks of life who participated in one of the greatest struggles to open up opportunity in our society that we have ever seen.

That's part of Rosa Park's legacy, but part of Rosa Park's legacy is also listening to this young girl, Mireya, saying that she is hoping for something else. That seems to be the essence of the American dream that in some ways described what Rosa Parks was all about. She refused the given of her reality and insisted that we could do better for herself, for her people and for the nation. And it seems to me that as we think about what kind of legacy we are going to leave behind, how we are going to commemorate Rosa Parks, it shouldn't just be lofted eulogies. It shouldn't just be namings of schools and streets and other inanimate objects. It seems to me that part of what we should be trying to do is to capture that sense that we're hoping for something else and we're willing to fight for something else. And we're not going to leave it just to the leaders, we're not going to leave it to the politicians, we're not going to leave it to Barack Obama or whoever the Democratic Party is selecting as a spokesperson for this or that occasion, but we're going to look inside ourselves. And we're going to try to say to ourselves, what are the things that we think are true? What are the things that we care about deeply? How are we going to make sure that every child gets the kind of education to prepare them for the global economy? How are we going to make certain that every person in need of health care has access? How do we deal with the kinds of challenges that our generation and future generations are going to face environmentally? Whatever it is that moves you deeply-- the way the imperative of freedom moved Rosa Parks-- we have to act on it. We have to act on that hope for something else. And it seems to me that if we commit ourselves to carrying on that fight one solitary act at a time for something bigger, something brighter, something bolder for ourselves and for this country then we are really living up to her example and giving her the kind of remembrance that she deserves.

Now, before I sign off I do think it's important to note something that, obviously in comparison to Ms. Parks appears somewhat trivial, but is connected. There has been a great deal of hope on the South Side of Chicago for a long time in the realm of sports--the desire for something better and never quite being able to get there. And yet, as I speak, the Chicago White Sox have gone up 3-0 against the Houston Astros after an epic 14 inning battle, the longest World Series game of all time. I think anybody who actually stayed up to watch the game knows that it was one of the most remarkable games in what has been a most remarkable season for the Chicago White Sox. The only sadness that's being experienced, I think, by Chicago fans right now is the fact that we're going to wrap this thing up in four. And so those of us who have tickets for game six and seven are probably going to be out of luck. But, I'm happy. I'm excited about this. The city of Chicago is happy. The state of Illinois is happy. And I'm looking forward to participating in that big parade down LaSalle Avenue coming up soon.

So talk to you guys next week and let your friends know that we are available on itunes or on our website once a week. Have a wonderful week. Bye-bye.