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Marching to Montgomery: The Cradle Did Rock

It was the Ecumenical Council, a hootenanny, a happening, and a revolution all rolled into one. And it happened in Montgomery, “Cradle of the Confederacy.”

A broken-down hipster, the Realist sticking out of his dungarees, marched alongside an Episcopal bishop clutching the Holy Bible. There were the kamikazes of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee — SNCC — in their blue-denim overalls, mud-caked boots, and rash helmets, next to middle-class housewives who won’t ride the subways after dark. There were nuns in flowing black habits arm in arm with jowly labor leaders who discriminate in their unions.

There were rabbis, junkies, schoolboys, actors, sharecroppers, intellectuals, maids, novelists, folk-singers, and politicians — 40,000 motives and 40,0000 people marching to Montgomery behind James Forman who hates the oppressor and Martin Luther King who loves the oppressed.

March on Washington

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New Generation

There were hundreds of high school and college youngsters — that new breed of revolutionary that has somehow grown up inside the bowels of prosperous America. There were kids who rioted against HUAC, vigiled against the Bomb, invaded Mississippi last summer, and turned Berkeley upside down. They are a new generation of insurgents, nourished not by Marx or Trotsky, but by Camus, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and SNCC. Their revolution is not against capitalism, but against what they deem to be the values of an enlightened America — Brotherhood Weeks, factories called colleges, desperation called success, and sex twice a week.

And there were thousands of clergymen symbolizing the revolution within a revolution — the nun with suntan cream on her face who marched all the way from Selma, priests, ministers, rabbis with yarmulkes. There was a huge sign: “Lutherans are Here Because Christ Cared.” Another read: “Kansas Mennonites Support Civil Rights.” And another: “SMU Marches for Freedom.”

On the streets of the Confederacy’s cradle that “coalition of conscience” Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington have tried to will into existence materialized spontaneously. A line of marchers, strung out as far as the eye could see, sang “America the Beautiful” and made it sound like a revolutionary anthem.

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Sleepy Beginning

The day that was to end in triumph and tragedy began in sleepy whimsy at 4 a.m. last Thursday for the 104 participants in the Village Independent Democrats’ “Fly-In” as they pulled out of the West Side Airlines Terminal singing ironic songs about their pilgrimage.

They sang in spirited atonality that quickly disintegrated into anarchy songs like “Stars Fell on Alabama” and “I’m Alabamy Bound” and “Swanee” and “Dixie.”

“Al-a-bam-a, here I come,” roared Bill Tatum, “VIDers, don’t be late, open up that capitol gate. Alabama, here I come, right back where I started from … “

The “Welcome to Montgomery” sign at Dannelly Airport reinforced the ironic mood of the pilgrims, especially for those who noticed that billboard just outside the airport that read: “Get the U. S. out of the U. N. or get the U. N. out of the U. S.”

Within 20 minutes the small airport lounge became congested as flights from Boston and St. Louis also landed, disgorging eager, smiling, scrubbed middle-class faces, some on top of clerical collars.

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Minister’s Greeting

A white minister from Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) greeted new arrivals, urged them to leave the city “as soon as the rally is over because it will be dangerous,” and directed them to shuttle buses to the City of St. Jude, a Roman Catholic complex where the marchers had camped the night before. On the SCLC minister’s lapel was a button that said “GROW.” He explained it stood for “Get Rid of Wallace.”

At St. Jude the predominant mood was gaiety, as thousands upon thousands of visitors swelled the great serpentine line of march that coiled around the vast, muddy athletic field.

Small clusters sang freedom songs during the two hours it took for the whole line to unwind onto the streets towards the capitol, four miles away. The visitors sang off-key versions of better-known freedom songs, while local Negroes, led by either SNCC or SCLC staff members, sang raucous, sassy, taunting songs that came out of the Movement in Alabama’s Black Belt. A group of about 500 from St. Louis stood in a large circle, one small, Negro woman calling out chorus after chorus of “We Shall Overcome.”

Other demonstrators milled around the staging area like conventioneers, wearing name tags and introducing themselves to strangers, pronouncing their home towns with accents of pride — Montreal, Berkeley, Boston, Detroit — and their association with equal pride — ADA, the United Auto Workers, NAACP, the University of Virginia, the American Legion (Gramercy Park chapter).

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To the Capitol

At noon, under one of the day’s brief showers, the procession began to move out, with the bloody-shoed 300 who had marched all the way in the vanguard. With them were barefoot Joan Baez; James Baldwin, nervously smiling, just back from Scandinavia; the angelic looking Montgomery seamstress Rosa Parks, who ignited the mythic bus boycott a decade ago; and SNCC’s John Lewis, who walked the whole way from Selma and who had suffered head injuries on “Bloody Sunday” at the Alabama River Bridge. And there was Martin Luther King, to whom Negroes of the Black Belt now sing “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and then kiss his hand.

The streets in the Negro slums of Montgomery were of mud and clay. There were row upon row of run-down shacks, with the very old, the very young, the unemployed sitting on porches.

The First Time

At first the non-marchers were timid and shy. It was as if shame made them look down rather than at the masses that surged past them. But slowly, they looked up, to wave, and when the marchers began to shout, “Join us, come on,” many accepted the invitation and probably protested their plight for the first time in their lives. Marching through the slums was like taking LSD for the soul.

One bent old woman ran off her porch and kissed a white marcher. Children, dirty and scrawny, ran alongside, singing the songs and chanting the slogans of freedom. A very old man, his cane resting between his legs, sat on his porch steps and wept.

About a mile from the capitol we reached the downtown section of Montgomery, with its banks, hotels, movies, stores, office buildings and clean asphalt streets. The sidewalks were almost deserted except for a sprinkling of hecklers and the federal troops at each intersection, standing at attention, their rifles at their sides.

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Traditional Gesture

But against the windows of the office buildings were pressed the white faces of the South. Some shook their heads “no” or gave the thumbs-down sign when the marchers waved at them. A beautiful woman of about 25 stood on the balcony of the Jefferson Davis Hotel, and when the demonstrators waved at her, this flower of Southern womanhood made the traditional obscene gesture of one finger up.

On the lawn of an elegant home a hunched, elderly maid stood in the midst of her sullen employers. She was smiling and waving a white handkerchief at the procession. One wonders what was happening in the minds of her employers at that moment.

Remarked Edward Koch, the Village Democratic leader: “Walking through the Negro section made me feel like I was walking through Paris again with the liberation army. The white section was what it must have been like marching through Germany.”

From the window of the Alabama Bible Society Building hung a blow up of the picture Senator Eastland introduced into the Congressional Record prior to the March on Washington to prove Martin Luther King was “part of the Communist conspiracy.” The photograph shows King at a rally in 1957 at the now-defunct leftist Highlander Folk School, which was burned by segregationists several years ago.

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Turns the Corner

Dexter Avenue is the eight-lane street that leads into the white stone capitol building. As the procession turned the corner of that final leg of the journey the marchers suddenly broke into “America the Beautiful” and sang it with a passion normally associated in the Movement with “We Shall Overcome.”

“America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea,” they sang. Hundreds of school children waving little American flag. Ahead loomed the dome of the capitol with its Alabama and Confederate flags blowing in the breeze.”By 2 p.m. all 40,000 marchers, including about 10,000 whites, arrived at the foot of the capitol and stretched out several blocks down Dexter Avenue. The symbolism of the scene was inescapable. At the spot where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated, where George Wallace shouted in his inaugural in 1961, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” the largest civil-rights demonstration in the history of the South sang “We Shall Overcome” — black and white, together — “We are not afraid today.”

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Ten Years Later

In the shadow of the red-brick Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, from whose pulpit Martin Luther King led the bus boycott 10 years earlier, the huge rally was turning into a kind of coronation of the 37-year old minister as spiritual leader of the nation.

“Who is your leader?” the Reverend Ralph Abernathy asked the throng. The answer swelled up. “Martin Luther King!” The only exceptions were veterans of SNCC, who yelled, “De Lawd of Slick.”But even that invidious distortion of SCLC was probably shouted as much in respect as in cynicism.

(The bitterness lurking in the background was based on the fact that SNCC, which had been alone in Dallas County since late 1962, had great difficulty working in harness with King after SCLC took over the Selma campaign in January. There had been serious disputes over strategy and tactics, since King’s basic goal is integration and SNCC’s is a revolution.)

After two hours of speeches by every major leader of the civil-rights movement, King was finally introduced to the crowd. Like the multitude in Washington in 1963, they had become fatigued and restless; many had been awake as long as 20 hours. Overhead, a helicopter and a Piper Cub circled noisily. Behind the platform two dozen green-helmeted Alabama conservation police guarded the steps of the capitol building. Behind them stood a number of members of the Alabama legislature.

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Then King began, his resonant voice and preacher’s alliterative rhythm slowly rousing the audience from boredom. From behind him on the platform came counterpoints of “Amen” and “Tell it, Brother” from other ministers.

In Washington he invoked the phrase, “I have a dream,” the way a blues singer repeats a key phrase. In Montgomery, facing the capitol, it was, “We are on the move now,” that became the launching pad for a series of crescendo-like thrusts.

“We are on the move now,” he said. “The burning of our churches will not deter us. We are on the move now. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now.”

Now the throng responded with shouts of “Yes, Lord,” and “Amen.”

“The beating of our clergymen will not divert us. We are on the move now. Yes, we are on the move now, and no wave of racism can stop us.”

King climaxed his speech by repeating four times with rising fervor, “Glory Glory Hallelujah.” And then the cooks, maids, and janitors were crying and cheering at the same time.

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There were supposed to be 26 shuttle buses waiting after the rally to ferry demonstrators from the capitol to the airport five miles away. But 21 of the drivers called in sick, and for two hours thousands milled around in a muddy lot a block behind the capitol while fives buses tried to do all the work. There was pushing, shoving, and maneuvering each time a bus pulled in. Finally an SNCC worker with a walkie-talkie told the crowd, “Come on, you’re acting like kids. This ain’t the New York subway.”

By dusk, the troops had disappeared and the last handful, waiting unprotected in the lot, feeling fear for the first time during the day.

Chaos reigned at the airport. Hundreds sprawled on the lawn, picnicking, sleeping and singing. Huge lines pointed to the lavatories and phones; there were no snack counters. All outgoing flights were late.

After an hour’s delay on the VID flight was ready to be boarded, except that there was no ladder available. So for another hour, the 104 weary passengers stood in a cramped line, 20 yards away from the plane, while a ladder was searched – or, as some suspected, hidden.

Meanwhile, a few yards away, the dean of all civil rights leaders, 77-year old Asa Philip Randolph, had collapsed from exhaustion and Bayard Rustin and Michael Harrington tended him while dispatching friends to find a doctor. The Montgomery police seemed uninterested.

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“It’s my fault,” Rustin mumbled. “I never should have gotten him up at 2 a.m. and he never should have walked those four miles.”

At 10:45 New York time, the VID flight left the cradle of the Confederacy amid complaints to the Civil Aeronautics Board about the delay and caustic reflections on “Southern hospitality.” There was no singing on the flight back. Most of the passengers slept. A few talked about the future of the civil rights movement, agreeing at the outset that Montgomery was just a skirmish in a long war whose end still lies beyond the rim of history.

Steve Berger, an aide to reform Congressman Jonathan Bingham, said the new voting rights bill was “pretty bad and very poorly drawn.” Others, activists of the movement, thought no legislation could possibly deal with the specter of firing, beating, and murder that faces any Negro who tries to register in the Black Belt. Other militants spoke eagerly of the next battle – the continuing attempt to unseat the five Congressmen from Mississippi by the Freedom Democratic Party.

Elizabeth Sutherland, who works for SNCC in New York, sat reading a private legal memorandum on the proposed voting bill, pointing out all its flaws and loopholes. “I just hope the registrars don’t get their hands on this memo,” she said.

And there was speculation about what would happen in the Black Belt now that the “civil rights tourists,” Dr. King, the federal troops, and the outside journalists were leaving and the Negroes were left alone to confront the Jim Clarks, the racist registrars, and those terrible faces that looked down from those windows.

When the plane landed at Kennedy Airport, its passengers were told it had already happened – murder. Nobody said anything memorable or poetic. They just cursed. ♦


Isn’t Obama a Doll?

I saw Rosa Parks in her underwear. I was looking for Michelle, Sasha, and Malia dolls on the Internet and found myself visiting, which traffics in virtual paper dolls and includes facsimiles of everyone from Angelina Jolie to Zhang Ziyi, but at this point, no Obamas. (For the record, possible ensembles for Parks include a demure blue coat with a stars-and-stripes scarf.)

In fact, I can’t find Obama dolls anywhere. I know times are lean—just yesterday, I got an e-mail that actually suggested toothpaste as a stocking stuffer (“The holidays are a great time to smile . . .”)—but I would think that if anything would fly off the shelves, it would be a quartet of shrunken Obamas.

Is it just too soon for these dolls to hit the stores? Is that the problem? I attempt to contact a number of toy companies, Mattel and Stardoll among them, to find out what’s up. Stardoll gets back to me—they decline to speak to me, but at least they get back to me—but no one else even has the courtesy to reject me. I chalk this up to three possibilities: 1) The companies’ PR departments have been laid off; 2) I am too ridiculously unimportant to be acknowledged; or 3) Legal problems surrounding the manufacture of celebrity dolls is a subject no one cares to discuss with a reporter.

I prefer to go with number three, especially after I do speak with somebody: Bruce Giuliano, a guy who was one of the people responsible for the ascent of Hello Kitty (don’t hate him for that) and who now has his own branding firm. Giuliano confirms that it is indeed a legal quagmire out there: Maybe a Barack doll would be OK, he thinks, since the president is sort of in the public domain, but the ladies are strictly off-limits. Of course, you could produce them without the first family’s permission, but then you might get sued.

In the unlikely event that you could get the Obamas to cooperate, you could just pay them royalties and you’d be fine. (There’s a guy somewhere in California who makes money every time you buy a Marilyn Monroe fly-swatter or beer mug. On the other hand, Giuliano tells me, the heirs of Audrey Hepburn are vociferously protective of her image, which is why you don’t see her elfin presence gracing toilet-paper covers.)

So, Bruce, how come Stardoll can feature everyone from Anna Wintour to Tinkerbell and not get sued? Seems as if you can do whatever you want with other people’s images, as long as you don’t make any money from it. And does appear to be free (I just spent an hour dressing up Paris and Nicole, and it didn’t cost me a thing). Then again, the site also features something called Stardollars, though I do not understand exactly what you can buy with them. (Ask an eight-year-old.)

Well, if I can’t have an Obama-girl doll, what can I have? I take a stroll through midtown, passing Saks Fifth Avenue, where there is a harrowing sign in the window that reads: “The Gift of Time—Enjoy no interest and no payments for 12 months when you spend $2,000 or more on one receipt, Tuesday, November 11 through Thursday, December 11.” What? Saks is now adopting the come-ons perfected by shady furniture stores on 14th Street? Who says you’ll be in any better shape to pay a year from now? On the other hand, should I just go in and buy a Cartier watch?

“No!” the Kit Kittredge doll shouts from the window of the American Girl store across the street. Kit is one of the store’s “Historical Characters”—she lived during the last economic collapse 75 years ago, and she’s so popular, she was played by Abigail Breslin in a movie last summer. (I saw it. It was good.) Kit’s on the market just when we need her. She even has a book, subtitled “Times are hard during the Great Depression, but Kit finds a way to make Christmas bright and merry.” (I hope it doesn’t include giving people toothpaste.) Plucky Kit, who wants to be a journalist (bad career choice there, hon), now comes not just in the traditional American-girl doll size—18 inches for $90—but in a $22 miniature version, so she can give you lectures from your pocket about canning fruits and making dresses out of flour sacks as you wander around Saks buying stuff you can’t pay for.

What’s this I spy at Toys “R” Us in Times Square, which is blissfully empty on a weekday afternoon? (Well, blissful for me; I don’t think the Toys “R” Us owners are all that thrilled.) It’s a Barbie for President doll, in black and white versions, and only $14.99! The box says, “Turn the White House pink—Vote Barbie for president,” and they are a distinct improvement over the sticky Fairytale Wedding Barbie and Musical Princess Barbie, both of whom, I am sad to say, are here in abundance. More good news in the next aisle: Sharpay and Zeke are going to the prom together. This is a boxed set of two dolls from High School Musical—she’s blonde and appears to be named after a dog; he’s black and has his arm around her—who seem to be dating, and no one cares. (At least I assume they’re dating, since I’ve never seen their show, since I run screaming from anything with “high school” in the title.) Sharpay and Zeke remind me, briefly, of another showbiz couple: If you’re really, really old, you remember that in 1968, Petula Clark (she’s white) merely touched Harry Belafonte’s arm (he’s black) during a musical number on NBC and set off a shameful storm of controversy.

I exit the store just in time to catch the tail end of the elaborate Uniqlo event set up across the street in the Times Square Recruiting Station (a task that may be easier if the new prez keeps his promise to extricate us from unnecessary conflicts). Uniqlo, a Japanese clothing company, has built some kind of elaborate booth its calling a human vending machine and has staffed it with Heat-Techies wearing silver bodysuits who are dancing around and dispensing free Heat-Tech shirts that allegedly retain warmth no matter how cold it is outside.

Just the thing to keep Rosa Parks’s descendants toasty in D.C. on January 20.


Banned From the Barbershop

On the day that Rosa Parks’s casket was on display in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, here in New York City the body of another battler for civil rights lay in the city morgue. Nobody seemed to notice that Marc LaCloche had died; 12 days after his death, his body was still unclaimed.

Marc never inspired a boycott or sparked a movement, but he fought for a precious, and seemingly simple, right: to work as a barber. The prison system had trained him to cut hair while he was locked up for first-degree robbery, and he’d worked in prison barbershops for years. But after his release in 2001, the state refused to allow him to work as a barber.

Few ex-prisoners who are rejected for a barber’s license fight back. Marc did. An administrative law judge reversed the state’s decision, and Marc worked in a midtown barbershop for three months until the state appealed his case and took away his license. He found a lawyer and brought his cause to State Supreme Court in 2003.

Marc’s court battle attracted the attention of the local media. Few people knew that the state was training prisoners to perform a job they couldn’t legally do once they were freed. The judge ordered the state to hold a hearing about Marc’s application. At the hearing, he’d have to prove he had “good moral character.”

Marc collected glowing letters from two barbershops that wanted to employ him, but the hearing officer still denied him a barber’s license, insisting he “tried to minimize his guilt” when asked about his crime. (Marc’s friend had killed a woman at the scene of the robbery, and over the years he had flip-flopped about whether he was in the room.)

At the same time that Marc was fighting for a barber’s license, he was waging another battle, this one against AIDS. Very few people knew he was sick; one of the few who did was Ezell Turner (whom Marc called by his last name). The two men were unlikely friends. They’d met in 2001, when Turner was a caseworker at the city’s Division of AIDS Services and Marc was his client.

Over the years, they had grown close. Marc phoned Turner once a week, to give an update on his life or ask for help. By mid October, when Turner hadn’t heard from Marc in three weeks, he started to worry. He called Marc’s new caseworker, and she told him the news.

Now, it seemed, Marc needed one last favor. His body would be buried in potter’s field on Hart Island, unless Turner could find money for a funeral.

The first glimpse Ezell Turner caught of Marc LaCloche was through a Plexiglas window at a welfare office near Penn Station. “Marc had a briefcase with his barber’s shop equipment and his important papers in it,” Turner says. “Most of the people are nodding or cursing or fighting, but he was just a cool guy. He really stood out. He was very polite.”

Turner helped him sign up for Medicaid, cash assistance, and food stamps. And he found him a room in an SRO hotel. Eventually, Marc moved to a basement apartment in the Bronx. He put a barber’s chair in a side room, transforming it into a makeshift barbershop. Whenever he was broke, he called his friend. “Turner, don’t you need a haircut?” he’d say. He charged $10 or $15 for a cut, but Turner always gave him $20. “He was fast and good,” Turner says.

Over the years, Marc revealed bits of information about his past. His parents had abandoned him at the hospital when he was born, and he’d grown up in the city’s foster care system. At one point, he’d had to fight off an adult’s attempts to molest him. He aged out of foster care at 18 and started selling drugs to support himself. By 24, he was on his way to state prison. He stayed there until he was 35.

In prison he learned that he was HIV-positive, and after his release, he dated only HIV-positive women, most of whom he met on the Internet. Turner knew many HIV-positive men who had unprotected sex, but Marc was more ethical. “He was a very nice-looking guy,” Turner says. “He could’ve just not even told the women he had it, but he wouldn’t do that.”

Even without a barber’s license, Marc continued to cut hair in at least two Manhattan barbershops. Still, he desperately wanted the certificate other barbers display on the wall by their chairs. He needed a license not only to cut hair legally, but also to pursue his entrepreneurial dream. His goal was to use his haircutting abilities to help other young people stay out of trouble.

“All he wanted was to open his barbershop and to have contracts with foster homes and cut the little kids’ hair,” Turner says, “and they wouldn’t let him do it.”

After Turner quit his job and began working at the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center earlier this year, Marc continued to rely on him. By then, Marc’s biggest complaint was his apartment. The heat never seemed to go on, neighbors stole his electricity (sending his Con Ed bill soaring), and rats crawled over him when he tried to sleep.

By this point, four years after leaving prison, many people would have already given up. It would’ve been easy for Marc to sell drugs again—and make enough money to move—but he was determined not to. Eventually, with Turner’s help, he managed to find another subsidized apartment.

He continued to battle for a barber’s license and found a lawyer to file a suit. And he kept searching for work, preparing yet another résumé and cover letter this past spring:

To Whom It May Concern,

My name is Marc LaCloche and I am desperately seeking employment. And I have been seeking employment for some time . . .

When I was released [from prison] I found that New York State would not issue me an official barber’s license due to my incarceration. I spent years developing this skill so that when I came out I would have a marketable skill and would be able to be employed so that I could support myself, legally.

I have not let this legal snafu discourage me and while I am disappointed that I have not been able to capitalize on my training, I am still determined to be gainfully employed.

I have enclosed my resume for your consideration. If you have any employment that you feel I can be considered for, please contact me . . .

Marc turned 40 years old on September 14, and by then he seemed despondent. One day, Turner checked his voice mail and heard Marc sobbing into his machine. Turner thought he might be suicidal, and he dialed the police. “I don’t think he was taking the medicine,” Turner says. “I think he had started giving up.” He had lost so much weight, Turner says, “he was a toothpick.”

After Marc died, Turner found a funeral home in Harlem that would cremate his body for $700. The only problem was that Turner didn’t have $700. He called a mutual friend named Fire, who cuts hair at a barbershop on West 38th Street. Fire passed the news of Marc’s death along to the other barbers who knew him. The news stunned them all; Marc had never told them he had AIDS.

Turner didn’t ask the barbers for money, and nobody offered any. He figured one of Marc’s old girlfriends might be able to come up with the $700, but he didn’t know any of their names. And he didn’t think Marc had any other close friends. The city morgue usually holds bodies for two weeks, and—barring some sort of miracle—Marc’s corpse will soon be on its way to Hart Island.

There, the men who dig his grave will be wearing the same uniform he once wore: the forest-green pants and jacket of the city jail system. Marc’s body will be placed in a pine box and buried in a ditch with 149 others. There will be no gravestone with his name, nothing to indicate that he spent the last four years fighting for the right to cut hair.


Just Say No

The only real power we the people possess, as individuals and en masse, is our deafening power to resolutely say No to the bullsheet. All those prescient and very pregnant Afrikans who tossed themselves overboard during the Middle Passage figured this out while sailing across the Atlantic in boats only built for Cuban links, as did the self-liberated captives aboard the Amistad who made the epiphanal discovery that sharp steel can tear open throats of any color. Midway through the last century Rosa Parks reminded us about the power of No all over again in far less dramatic, bloodthirsty, and self-annihilating fashion coming home one night on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 1, 1955. Defying a post-bellum social custom that decades of bowing down had transformed from a rule of law into a robotic law of the father, Ms. Parks said No loud enough for the Supreme Court to hear. She held her ground when convention commanded she clear out so some self-inflated kracka could assert his nobility among the animals. The history of African Americans is full of small, quiet acts of resistance as personal and fundamental as Ms. Parks’s, but few so resonant as to become a liberation movement’s creation myth.

Thanks to the Daily News’ beyond-fabulous sepia-tone mug-shot memorial cover, Parks, the bespectacled seamstress–NAACP activist of 1955, is now officially a Thug Immortal, the original ride-or-die chick. So gangsta, so About The Black, she moved all the way to roughneck Detroit as Montgomery fast turned life-threatening. The News‘ cover choice has upset some in the cult-nat ranks, but I applaud it lest we forget the freedom road is paved with jailed revolutionaries and that liberation rhymes with incarceration when not death. Tain’t but a hop, skip, and a jump from Parks to Angela and Assata on the FBI Most Wanted lists. And unlike the women of the Weather Underground who had to blow some shit up to get there, all these Black women had to do to register as threats to kracka supremacy was to make a federal case out of saying No.

The record will show that sister Rosa wasn’t the first person in her community to Just Say No to bloated and ridiculous kracka privilege. She was, however, a poised, committed, and perfect fit for her beloved NAACP’s good Negro profile. The one chosen and the chosen one, designed by nature and designated by nurture to ignite sympathy and resistance locally, nationally, and internationally in the wake of the recent Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court victory of 1954 and the still-smoldering outrage over Emmett Till.

Timing is everything. Had Ms. Parks’s rejection of ritual Negro obeisance to niggerization in transit occurred a year earlier, maybe there’d have been no Montgomery bus boycott and no Martin Luther King Jr. to galvanize and emerge from it. But certain acts like certain people possess an air of inevitability not only in retrospect but as they are occurring. And the seagusts of change Ms. Parks helped set in motion proved no mild breeze but a tempestuous hurricane that this country can’t help but to keep reeling from for as long as being Black in America and being American remain irreconcilable ideas. As the recent events in New Orleans have shown us, race is the country’s most frequently recurring nightmare. It also is the most stable marker and litmus test of the nation’s moral and mental immaturity—the deferred dream whose most obvious attribute and lasting legacy is bound up with the country’s spiritual fate and mirrored face from Birmingham to Abu Ghraib. What Rosa Parks did with her No has become mythical because like Perseus’s triumph over Medusa, it forced kracka supremacy to recoil from the banality and weakness of its evil. By the same token her action made her own folk recognize that there is a difference between being powerless and being terrorized. A difference made manifest when their engagement in the famous 381-day bus boycott affirmed the power a community of No’s can amass in a society where the power of the profits, revered in ways reserved for the supernatural, can magically sweep aside racist custom when it conflicts with commerce.

Ms. Parks’s passing at 92 last Monday also begs we reflect upon the economic boycott as a political tactic in an age where the crux of living is fast becoming to shop or not to shop. Buyer-logical determinism is thrust upon even the poor by connective technologies that have made the world simultaneously smaller and more mall-like. The marked difference between the time when Ms. Parks said No and our own is that the No we need to say has less to do with paying for the privilege of being oppressed than with how our dreams and desires have become what keeps systemic oppression alive. So that as crazy and quixotic as it sounds, a modern-day equivalent of what Ms. Parks and the Black community of Montgomery did would require all people of conscience to cease and desist. Out in the virtual military-industrial-consumption complex where power now attempts to rule over our tricked-out, pimped-out, and branded brain matter, there’d be a riot of concern for our happiness and well-being. So much concern that being offline would probably become a treasonous offense.

Yeah, the Wachowski brothers already made the dumbass movie, but in this version the point wouldn’t be to reboot a more benign opiate of the people but to reboot the very question of human freedom. Ralph Ellison once intimated that if you want to slip the yoke of slavery then you got to change the joke. Rosa Parks turned sitting on your Black ass into a liberation dance. The Blackfolk of 1956 Montgomery hurled carpooling at their oppressors like a Molotov cocktail. Here and now all we got to do to start a ruckus is stage a mass logoff of the virtual economy for a couple of centuries.


The Drama’s Non-Supporting Cast

On the fateful day Rosa Parks stepped onto his bus, James Blake had been driving for Montgomery City Lines for 13 years, save for two years he spent in the military in Europe. He would drive for 19 more before retiring in 1974. A native of Seman, Alabama, who left school after the ninth grade, Blake was bitter about his place in the history books, telling a Washington Post reporter in 1989, “I wasn’t trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job.” Blake died in 2002.

The man who sentenced Parks to a $10 fine and court costs, Recorder’s Court Judge John B. Scott, served 35 years on the bench, beginning when he was about 21. “I know he started growing a mustache to try to look older,” says Scott’s son John, who still lives in Montgomery. The younger Scott tells the Voice his dad never discussed the Parks case. “At the time, people didn’t realize that this is something that was going to blossom into significance,” he says. Scott died in 1978 at age 71.

The prosecutor in the case, Eugene Loe, succeeded Scott to the bench and died years ago, according to University of Michigan professor J. Mills Thornton, a historian of the civil rights era. The judge who heard Parks’s appeal, Eugene Carter, is also gone. The cops who arrested Parks, Fletcher B. Day and Dempsey W. Mixon, could not be located, although Thornton says they were alive recently.

What about the white dude who wanted Parks’s seat? “There were a number of standing white people waiting for seats and people on the sidewalk,” Thornton says. Thus, no single white person was the reason for the order to Parks to move back. There were a lot of ’em.


NYPD Unplugs Cindy Sheehan

Cindy Sheehan may be the Rosa Parks of the anti-war movement. But that didn’t stop members of the New York Police Department from marching into the crowd of about 150 people gathered in Union Square Monday to hear her speak and yanking away the microphone.

The NYPD pulled the plug just as Sheehan was calling on the audience not to lose heart in the fight to end the war in Iraq.

“We get up every morning, and every morning we see this enormous mountain in front of us,” said Sheehan, speaking on behalf of the other parents and family members of fallen soldiers who have taken up the crusade to bring the troops home.

“We can’t go through it, we can’t go under it, so we have to go over it,” she continued, just as the cops rushed the makeshift podium.

Police dragged away Paul Zulkowitz, a.k.a. Zool, an organizer with “Camp Casey NYC,” the small encampment that he and other activists set up a month ago in Union Square in solidarity with Sheehan’s vigil outside President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. The New York branch existed much to the ire of the city’s Parks Department. Today, Zulkowitz was arrested for failing to obtain a sound permit—a charge that normally warrants no more than a summons.

Moments earlier, Zulkowitz had been chastising Parks officials for refusing to grant a permit to the encampment, and accusing the police of trying to harass the antiwar protest away. Contrasting the liberal Big Apple with the hostile environs Sheehan faced in Crawford, Zulkowitz told the crowd: “You would think that here in New York City, at Union Square—our Hyde Park—you would think that we would little difficulty having a 24-hour vigil to oppose the war. In fact, we’ve had two arrests and eight summonses and endless harassment from the police for doing what we do.”

As the activists hustled away Sheehan and the other family members on the Bring Them Home Now tour, an enraged crowd of about 50 people stormed after the police, chanting, “Shame! Shame!” Meanwhile Iraq war veteran and now peace activist Jeff Key played “God Bless America” on his trumpet.

“Since when can’t you talk out here in Union Square?” demanded an Upper West Side social worker who identified herself as Quha, who said she’d taken her lunch break to hear Sheehan because she has a 20-year-old son who is considering enlisting. “I’ve seen everyone and their mother come out and speak nonsense out here in this park, and for them to shut down Cindy Sheehan is just not right.”

“They came in like gangbusters. It was really ridiculous,” said Margaret Rapp, a retired teacher from Inwood who added that she planned to file a complaint after an officer forcibly shoved her in the chest. A mother of a 19-year-old, she said she’d come to hear Sheehan because she lost her fiancee during the Vietnam War. “This is very close to home. There is a chord that Cindy hits among people that have lost people in this war and other wars, or who have draft age children like me. We’re scared to death.”

Inspector Michael McEnroy, commander of the 13th Precinct, insisted the shutdown order had nothing to do with the content of Sheehan’s speech, but was instead about the “provocation” caused by Zulkowitz. “This has been going on for much longer than today,” McEnroy said, adding of Sheehan, “I don’t even know the woman.” That last part prompted one pissed-off onlooker to shoot back: “Haven’t you watched the news or read a paper in the last three months? ”

Sheehan has been touring the country for the last month with members of Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak out, and Iraq Veterans Against the War. They will be speaking tonight at 6:30 at St. John the Divine (Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street), part of the lead up to Saturday’s big anti-war march in Washington, D.C.

Yet for all their fussing over sound permits, the police evidently weren’t troubled the young folkie who set up his own mic and portable amp shortly after Sheehan and her entourage had left, then launched into a round of Dylanesque protest songs.

Sheehan’s mic wasn’t that much louder, leaving one to wonder whether the cops’ hasty halt to the speakout was perhaps motivated more by the crowd she drew and the radical posturing voiced by some of the speakers leading up to her—including Dustin Langley of the Troops Out Nowcoalition, who urged the anti-warriors milling in the bright sun to “open a new front of resistance right here. Bring Falluja to New York and shut it down!”