To Judge Keith and all of the members of the clergy; to all of the members of Congress who are here and our state legislators; to our heads of corporations and honored guests – I’m so glad you’re here.
But today, I want to address my comments not to you, the “titled” people. Instead, I’d like to talk, for a moment, with everyone out there who doesn’t have a title – those who aren’t credentialed. I want to use my time to speak to everyone who’s never been elected. I want to speak not to the CEOs, but to the secretaries of the company; not to the senators, but to the janitors; not to those who were lucky enough to be ushered into this beautiful space today, but to those who stood in line for hours waiting to get in. And to those of you who are outside who did not get in – this is your day.
Rosa Parks was lain in honor in our nation’s Capitol, in the great Rotunda that’s reserved only for war heroes and for Presidents. But she was not a President. She was, though, a war hero. She was a heroic warrior for equality, and that alone, my God, surely is enough for a nation to celebrate.
But Rosa Parks was also a warrior for the everyman and the everywoman. She was a warrior with the soft armor of a seamstress; a warrior with the powerful weapon of the Sunday school teacher; a warrior wearing a warrior’s helmet made of a crown of perfectly coiled braids; a soldier whose tank in this battle was a city bus; an improbable warrior leading an unlikely army of waitresses, and street sweepers, and shopkeepers, and auto mechanics; a warrior protected in this army by the piercing weapons of love and non-violence, more powerful than any weapons or any army before or since.
And so, perhaps what we are celebrating today – in addition to the fight, the noble fight – is how it was fought. Rosa Parks stands for every one of us improbable warriors, in every seemingly small moment where truth and justice are at risk. She offered every one of us this example of a splendid paradox – the paradox of quiet strength. No more quiet than strong; certainly no more strong than quiet, each reinforcing the other.
Rosa Parks was powerful, because she was improbable. She was unexpected. She was untitled. And what was true of Gandhi was certainly true of Rosa Parks: that her greatness lay in what everybody could do, but doesn’t. We will all say today that the greatest tribute we could pay to our improbable warrior is to continue battling and to do so in a way that honors her life.
I, like you, imagine the day when the war will be won. The day when a brilliant 8-year-old chess player has the same chances in life, whether she lives in Livonia or off Livernois. We know that this war will be won when the son of a barber on Grand River receives from each of us the same looks of hope and words of encouragement as the son of a doctor in Grand Rapids. We know that the war will be won when the city of Bloomfield Hills and the city of Detroit have the same college graduation rates – and the same low prison incarceration rates as well.
We know that we will be winning Mrs. Parks’ war – our war – when it’s yesterday’s news when a newly elected governor, senator, or President is a woman or person of color - yesterday’s news. We know we will be winning the war when people in the state of Michigan do not have to vote on whether diversity in our university classrooms is a good thing. We know we will see signs that we are winning this war when love overwhelms fear, and acts of quiet strength become our daily bread.
So – good night, Mrs. Parks, from the state of Michigan, to our own gently powerful hero. Because by your actions, you have given us our final marching orders. We are enlisted in this war.
On behalf of the state of Michigan, ma’am, we are reporting for duty.