This week’s episode about the mother of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to give up her seat for a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and was arrested for her bravery, made me cry. It was beautifully filmed and beautifully written and the message was loud and clear. Rosa Parks deserves her place in history.
But I could not help but draw comparisons with the sickening events of last Friday. The same headlines could have been written more than 60 years ago when Rosa made her magnificent stand, which cost her her job, but which effectively led to the end of segregation in the divided Deep South.
‘Racist man refused to sit next to black woman’ was just one.
And that’s what made me cry, that events on a plane now, all those years later, could still highlight sick, insidious bigotry. The irony that it happened in Black History Month and at the end of National Hate Crime Awareness week was also not lost on me. It made me ask how far have we come? Well, the answer is a long way.
When I first saw the video of the vile abuse suffered by an elderly woman seated on board a Ryanair flight I thought at first it was one of those horrible social media experiments where actors play out roles to test public reaction. It couldn’t be true. Only it was.
And before we go any further yes the man who first posted it on social media was right to film it. That’s the only way we could see the raw painful truth of what it is to be judged by the colour of your skin. And no the steward didn’t handle it well. I suspect he was so shocked at what was happening that no amount of training could have prepared him for what he was expected to do. It was abhorrent and deeply disturbing. But the public reaction, the swell of support for this poor woman, was also strangely uplifting. And a cause to celebrate.
I was lucky enough to grow up in multicultural Bradford in all its glory in the sixties and seventies. My father was one of the first police race relations officers in the country. I remember it as a time that made my soul sing, a time of celebrating difference not condemning it. I also remember the profound effect as a teenager of reading To Kill A Mockingbird, the story of Atticus Finch, the lawyer ostracised for defending an innocent black man accused of rape.
When it was banned in one school in Alabama two years ago for being “uncomfortable” reading I was horrified. Of course it’s uncomfortable. As we have seen this week racism is always uncomfortable. But the lessons of the past are just as important as the lessons of this week.
Last Christmas I gave my six year old granddaughter Elise, the Rosa Parks story. It was just one of a wonderful series of books written for young children about women who have changed the world. Role models to aspire to.
Bless her she didn’t understand the Rosa Parks story at first. “But mummy”,she said “My friend has brown skin and I drink from the same water fountains. I don’t understand.” Well thank goodness she doesn’t. I cannot and will not show Elise what happened on Ryanair last Friday.
I do not need to introduce the concept of racial prejudice where there is none.
But one day I will tell her the story of Delsie Gayle the woman on a plane in 2018 and of the profound effect she has had on us all. I will tell her that this proud woman was part of the Windrush generation who years after they arrived still had to fight for acceptance. I will also tell her of her tears, her sleepless nights and her deep distress at being judged, no verbally abused because she is black. And how dignified she was in her bewildered response.
I will also tell her there are still a lot of Rosa Parks, a lot of people who need to make a stand against prejudice.
More importantly I will tell her I am proud she will be one of them . If a six year old can read the story of Rosa and say “But mummy that’s not fair”, if millions of people can rise up against racism and hatred on a plane, then there is hope for us all. God bless you Delsie Gayle. If we cannot truly know what it is like to walk in your shoes, we can and will walk beside you.