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Monday, June 20, 2011

Talking civil rights

I tend to feel that the civil rights movement that began in the 1950s was the United States of America’s finest hour. A whole class of people, so put down for so long, rising up in a nonviolent movement to gain equality. In the process, they made their country a better place.

I’m thinking about this today because over the weekend, I and a few friends had the chance to chat informally with a teenaged boy in Northern Ireland. Among the things we talked about (it was very early Sunday morning!) was the troubled history of N. Ireland, which he was learning about it in his history class.

What is it that somebody said history was? Old newspapers. What's history today was on the radio every day when I was younger.

Someone brought up the almost-as-recent history of segregation in the southern U. S. “Yes,” this young man said, “there was a lady who was sitting in the back of the bus, and she refused to give up her seat to a white person—”

“Rosa Parks,” we chorused.

To me, Rosa Parks is one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. She, and a young little-known preacher named Martin Luther King and some others of their circle, took some steps and the steps they took led to Selma, to Montgomery, Alabama and Washington, D. C. They reverberate around the world.

I love it that a kid in a part of the world once known for its troubles knows who Rosa Parks is. Maybe the best thing that could happen to his country is that, to him, that troubled past is history.

UPDATE: In the 24 hours since I wrote this, two things have happened. Northern Ireland, specifically an area east of Belfast, has been experiencing its worst riots in years, and my book club discussed Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun. This groundbreaking play about the black American experience was first staged in 1959, and the British readers in my book group wondered if it wasn't a bit dated now, since all this time has passed? No, I said. It's astonishing how contemporary it is.

Plus ├ža change...