Edmund Burke was a political philosopher and a member of the House of Commons in England in the 18th century, a period of turmoil and revolution. It was Burke who noted that “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.” That point taken up by Dr. King and other spokesmen and women of the civil rights movement. It is the lens through which I understand my own role during that era and the continuing role of many of us today.
I was raised in North Central West Virginia where the population was and is overwhelmingly Caucasian. Segregation was nowhere specifically taught but everywhere assumed. It was part of the order of things that we, especially we who benefitted from it, accepted. In this way it was much like the unequal distribution of wealth in our own day. The United States constitutes only 4% of the world’s population yet controls nearly 40% of the world’s wealth. No one teaches us that this is right or fair, we simply accept it as the way things are. Undoubtedly it is unfair and many people suffer the consequences of such disparity but we seldom see them and since we are the beneficiaries of it there is little motivation to question it. The evils of segregation were allowed to flourish then the same way that the evils of poverty are allowed to flourish now. In both cases we good people do nothing.
If one’s conscience were to be caught by an event the way a jacket catches on a nail or a toe finds an uneven brick, our progress might be disturbed if only for a moment. The murder of Emmett Till in, what was to us in West Virginia, far off and incomprehensible Mississippi, was such an event. It meant far more to Rosa Parks who was in the midst of its anguish but to the good people of my world it was like the pictures of Asian sweatshops where much of our fine clothing is made. It was disturbing, deplorable—but far away. So far away that good people could pretend that it was not real. The same way that we good people gathered here for this solemn occasion are probably all wearing some article of clothing that was made in conditions we would never condone but can always deny. Conscience can be caught by events and images but it is seldom held for long and evil flourishes.
When the question of segregation was brought up in serious conversation in my world and good people faced its obvious evils, the show stopping question was always “What can you do?” The problem was too big, the roots too deep, the results too vague. In that way it was like global warming with causes set deep in history and consequences just beyond the horizon. Nobody knows exactly how to fix it, we do not know anyone who might actually be able to make a difference in its course. The show stopper question now as then was “What can you do?” So, as Edmund Burke noted, good people do nothing and evil flourishes.
But by the grace of God not every good person follows that course. In her autobiography, Rosa Parks wrote, “ I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move. Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it.” (Rosa Parks: My Story) It was the simple decision to stop participating in what is wrong and do what is right. Such logic ignores the size of an issue, discounts its roots and shows no interest in its consequences. It is right simply because it is right—nothing more, nothing less
Of her subsequent arrest she said, “I did not want to be mistreated… It was just time…there was opportunity for me to take a stand to express the way I felt about being treated in that manner. I had not planned to get arrested. I had plenty to do without having to end up in jail. But when I had to face that decision, I didn’t hesitate to do so because I felt that we had endured that too long. The more we gave in, the more we complied with that kind of treatment, the more oppressive it became.” (1992 interview with National Public Radio’s Lynn Neary)
“It was just time.” And it was. A pregnant time in ways she could not have imagined. Her decision to stop participating in what was wrong and do what was right changed the course of history in this land. And for that reason we gather to place her image forever before us where we can remember not only this woman but also that simple formula: It is time to stop feeding evil with ham fisted violence or with handwringing goodness. It is time to stop doing what is wrong and do what is right no matter the size, the roots or the results.
Rosa parks changed the course of history but she did not change human nature. Evil, in various garbs and disguises, continues to flourish in our land. And good people for reasons we all know and understand continue to do nothing. But it continues to be time to take the first step, to do what is right simply because it is right.
May God bless the eyes of all who see this likeness to see that truth as well.