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Ms. Rosa’s Smile


Carlos Raphael of Louisville, Kentucky graciously granted me permission to use one of his artistic creations for the cover design of my book, The Faith Factor. Titled “Ms. Rosa in Strength,” the painting depicts the painful struggle for Black liberation in the United States of America during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s. At the center of the otherwise somber collage is the profile of a colorful and jovial Rosa Parks who is encircled by strategically placed sepia portrayals of three contemplative religious icons of the movement: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and Imam El Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X). The picture is bordered by a stained glass frame that serves as a subtle reminder of the crucial role the Black church played in the freedom movement. This moving painting–which is currently on display at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee–further represents the intensity of the peaceful revolution with the fire hoses that form the inner frame, the jagged canine teeth of police dogs, and oversized tear drops reflecting a fragment of a “No Coloreds Allowed” sign.

Why the Smile?

Those unfamiliar with the Civil Rights Movement may wonder why the bespectacled woman at the center of the collage smiles so confidently while surrounded by images of gloom. Her optimism seems out of place in a picture that evokes memories of assassinations, lynchings, church bombings, second-class citizenship, governmental abuse of power, and a host of other evils. If I viewed this picture without knowing about the Movement, I would want to know why this woman was smiling. But I do know about the Movement, and I also know why Mrs. Parks is smiling.

Mrs. Parks is smiling because her sitting down compelled her people to stand up. Mrs. Parks is smiling because her saying “no” encouraged her people say “yes.” Mrs. Parks is smiling because her violation of an oppressive law liberated her people from government endorsed slavery. Mrs. Rosa is smiling because her willingness to be martyred extinguished the fear of her people. Mrs. Rosa is smiling because–in the spirit of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth–the gender that is often stereotyped as the “weaker vessel” had manifested itself as a tower of strength for an entire race.

The Promised Land

On October 25, 2005, this 92 year old champion for justice breathed her last. In God’s peculiar providence she was spared the fate that snatched the youthful spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Imam Malik el-Shabbaz, and was granted the years to taste some of the fruit of her labor. She lived to see a people who were once confined to the outhouse elevated to prominent places in the White House. She lived to see a people who were once relegated to menial occupations promoted to chief positions of Fortune 500 companies. She lived to see a people who were dismissed as intellectually inferior advanced to the head of research departments at major universities. Unlike Imam el-Shabbaz and Dr. King, Mrs. Parks had been granted the opportunity to experience life in the “Promised Land”–she had a reason to smile. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that issues of racial disparity have been resolved in the United States of America. Evil racism remains a destructive force in the nation. However, I am sure that Mrs. Parks went to sleep that Tuesday knowing that things are not what they ought to be, but feeling thankful that “things ain’t what they used to be.”

Taking a Stand

As we celebrate Black History Month, I am reminded that it is almost sixty years since that pivotal day in 1955 when Mrs. Parks refused to yield her seat to a man who had preference simply because of his ethnicity. I believe that the best way we can honor her memory is by taking a stand against the forces of evil. Taking a stand does not necessarily mean joining picket lines outside abortion clinics or organizing mass rallies to protest the slaughter of tens and thousands of innocent lives in war zones. There are other ways to make your voice heard. A person can take a stand by refusing to patronize companies that exploit workers in the two-third worlds as they boost first world profit margins. A person can take a stand by participating in the democratic process and identifying (or becoming) alternatives to political representatives who continue to fail their constituents. A person can take a stand by confronting ecclesiastical leaders who use their positions to exploit their members. A person can take a stand by not remaining silent when a fellow worker or family member has been abused by an authority figure.

When we take a stand, we will be able to smile like Ms. Rosa, not necessarily because all wrongs will be made right, but because we know that we have responded to the voice of God’s Spirit. When we take a stand, we will be able to face death with the confidence of this heroine of faith who could join the apostle Paul in testifying, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7). Ever since I was introduced to Mrs. Parks she has been one of my mentors. I trust you too will follow her courageous example, as you make life choices with the knowledge that “a tree is known by its fruit.”


Keith Augustus Burton is the Coordinator for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University. He is the author of The Faith Factor: The Key to Black Empowerment.

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