Honor Rosa Parks
Close the Inequality Gap

By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.
Published December 13th 2005 in BlackNews.com

We celebrate this historic season - the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' decision to remain seated on the bus. This simple act launched a movement that has had far-reaching impact. She sat down so that a nation could finally stand up.

She tested the 1954 Supreme Court decision to end Jim Crow which set off court suits and protests that culminated in the federal government intervening to bring about the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. She defied states rights law, in pursuit of a more perfect union. Thus, her legacy is secure, but the challenge to choose a more perfect union over states rights remains our challenge – even as the president appoints states rights judges at every level of our judicial system. Her act of principle has changed America, and influenced freedom fighters around the world.

From Lech Walesa in Poland to Nelson Mandela in South Africa, all have felt the impact of this season of struggle 50 years ago. Yet, while the “bus gap” has been bridged, the inequality gap continues in all social and economic areas, from life expectancy, to criminal justice, to income, education, and housing. This is especially true in the South, a rich region with our poorest people.

Since Montgomery was the site of the bus boycott, let’s look at Alabama 50 years after Rosa Parks launched the New South. The numbers below make it quickly obvious that though many of the legal gaps have been closed, the structural gaps created by slavery and segregation remain. In fact, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition this week called upon Governor Riley of Alabama to create a bipartisan commission to address the massive structural inequality that is part of the social fabric of Alabama and the South today. We could make the same demand of every Governor across the New South — indeed, in every state in our less-than-perfect Union.

The following statistics illustrate the severity of the inequality gap in Alabama, where the U.S. Census for 2000 reported the state’s population is about 26% African American:

  • Of the 27,500 prisoners in the state, 68% are African American.
  • Blacks in Alabama are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of whites.
  • 84% of prisoners committed nonviolent crimes.
  • 24% of African American males are incarcerated.
  • None of 19 appellate judges is African American.
  • Only 2 of 15 federal judges are African American.
  • 16 of 220 state judges are African American.
  • 1 of 40 district attorneys is African American.
  • 8 of 67 sheriffs are African American.
  • 17% of Alabamans are uninsured.
  • 25% of children live in poverty (national rate: 20%).
  • 33% of jobs are at poverty level (1999).
  • 34% of Alabamans live in poverty.
  • 44% of African Americans and Latinos live in poverty.
  • The number of African American Alabamans in prison exceeds the number of African American Alabaman college students.
  • Alabama invests more in incarcerating its residents than it does in educating the next generation. Per pupil spending on elementary and secondary education is $5,937, while the state spends $10,000 annually per prisoner.
  • Alabama currently ranks at the bottom of virtually every public health performance measure. For example, the state’s infant mortality rate is 47th worst in the country.
  • Sadly, these numbers look very similar to those we would have found in 1955. We have made legal progress — but the structural gaps have grown into canyons.

    Inequality continues to be a fact of life in Alabama and across America. While we honor the legacy of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Emmett Till and the thousands of others who contributed to the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, it is clear that so much remains to be done. Only through a renewed commitment to education on the issues and mass action can we begin to create the change that is still so desperately needed in Alabama, across the New South, and throughout the country.

    The “bus gap” has been closed. It is now time to address the inequality gap.

    These gaps in racial inclusion, education, incarceration, income, and health care threaten the well-being of our democracy. As the United States struggles to bring democracy to Iraq, proportional representation has been mandated in the new Iraqi constitution. Women, Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis are all guaranteed representation. It is a model that attempts to build around inclusion.

    At home, we continue to turn a blind eye to those who are being left behind — those without resources, those who lack powerful lobbyists with which to protest the conditions reflected in the preceding statistics. We are stuck in a “Katrina model”— a model of democracy built around exclusion. Does the “Katrina model” of exclusion reflect our true national values?

    Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr. and Emmett Till and so many others opened the door to greater inclusion through events that started in Alabama a half century ago. Because of their vision and valor, we have closed the “bus gap”; now to honor them and to build a more perfect Union, Alabama — and America — must close the inequality gap.