THE REAL ROSA PARKS


Paul Loeb

We

learn much from how we present our heroes. A few years ago, on Martin Luther

King. Day, I was interviewed on CNN. So was Rosa Parks, by phone from Los

Angeles. "We’re very honored to have her," said the host. "Rosa

Parks was the woman who wouldn’t go to the back of the bus. She wouldn’t get up

and give her seat in the white section to a white person. That set in motion the

year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned Rosa Parks the title of ‘mother

of the Civil Rights movement.’"

I

was excited to hear Parks’s voice and to be part of the same show. Then it

occurred to me that the host’s description–the story’s standard

rendition–stripped the Montgomery boycott of all its context. Before refusing

to give up her bus seat, Parks had spent twelve years helping lead the local

NAACP chapter, along with union activist E.D. Nixon, from the Brotherhood of

Sleeping Car Porters, teachers from the local Negro college, and a variety of

ordinary members of Montgomery’s African American community. The summer before,

Parks had attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee’s labor and civil

rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she’d met an older

generation of civil rights activists and discussed the recent Supreme Court

decision banning "separate-but-equal" schools. During this period of

involvement and education, Parks had become familiar with previous challenges to

segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier, successfully

eased some restrictions; a bus boycott in Baton Rouge won limited gains two

years before Parks was arrested; and the previous spring, a young Montgomery

woman had also refused to move to the back of the bus, causing the NAACP to

consider a legal challenge until it turned out that she was unmarried and

pregnant, and therefore a poor symbol for a campaign. In short, Parks didn’t

make a spur-of-the-moment decision. Rosa Parks didn’t single-handedly give birth

to the civil rights efforts, but she was part of an existing movement for

change, at a time when success was far from certain. This in no way diminishes

the power and historical importance of her refusal to give up her seat. But it

does remind us that this tremendously consequential act might never have taken

place without all the humble and frustrating work that she and others did

earlier on. And that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous

and critical as her choice on the bus that all of us have heard about.

People

like Parks shape our models of social commitment. Yet the conventional retelling

of her story creates a standard so impossible to meet, it may actually make it

harder for us to get involved. This portrayal suggests that social activists

come out of nowhere, to suddenly take dramatic stands. It implies that we act

with the greatest impact when we act alone, or at least when we act alone

initially. It reinforces a notion that anyone who takes a committed public

stand, or at least an effective one, has to be a larger-than-life

figure–someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, or knowledge than any

normal person could ever possess. This belief pervades our society, in part

because the media tends not to represent historical change as the work of

ordinary human beings, which it almost always is.

Once

we enshrine our heroes on pedestals, it becomes hard for mere mortals to measure

up in our eyes. However individuals speak out, we’re tempted to dismiss their

motives, knowledge, and tactics as insufficiently grand or heroic. We fault them

for not being in command of every fact and figure, or being able to answer every

question put to them. We fault ourselves as well, for not knowing every detail,

or for harboring uncertainties and doubts. We find it hard to imagine that

ordinary human beings with ordinary flaws might make a critical difference in

worthy social causes.

Yet

those who act have their own imperfections, and ample reasons to hold back.

"I think it does us all a disservice," says a young African-American

activist in Atlanta named Sonya Tinsley, "when people who work for social

change are presented as saints–so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a

false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, never

had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light. But I’m much more inspired

learning how people succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties. It’s a

much less intimidating image. It makes me feel like I have a shot at changing

things too."

Sonya

had recently attended a talk given by one of Martin Luther King’s Morehouse

professors, in which he mentioned how much King had struggled when he first came

to college, getting only a ‘C’, for example, in his first philosophy course.

"I found that very inspiring, when I heard it," Sonya said,

"given all that King achieved. It made me feel that just about anything was

possible."

Our

culture’s misreading of the Rosa Parks story speaks to a more general collective

amnesia, where we forget the examples that might most inspire our courage and

conscience. Apart from obvious times of military conflict, most of us know next

to nothing of the many battles ordinary men and women fought to preserve

freedom, expand the sphere of democracy, and create a more just society. Of the

abolitionist and civil rights movements, we at best recall a few key

leaders–and often misread their actual stories. We know even less about the

turn-of-the-century populists who challenged entrenched economic interests and

fought for a "cooperative commonwealth." Who these days can describe

the union movements that ended 80-hour work weeks at near-starvation wages? Who

knows the origin of the social security system? How did the women’s suffrage

movement spread to hundreds of communities, and gather enough strength to

prevail?

As

memories of these events disappear, we lose the knowledge of mechanisms that

grassroots social movements have used successfully in the past to shift public

sentiment and challenge entrenched institutional power. Equally lost are the

means by which their participants managed to keep on and eventually prevail in

circumstances at least as harsh as those we face today. As novelist Milan

Kundera writes, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of

memory against forgetting."

Think

again about the different ways one can frame Rosa Parks’s historic action. In

the prevailing myth, Parks decides to act almost on a whim, in isolation. She’s

a virgin to politics, a holy innocent. The lesson seems to be that if any of us

suddenly got the urge to do something equally heroic, that would be great. Of

course most of us don’t, so we wait our entire lives to find the ideal moment.

Parks’s

real story conveys a far more empowering moral. She begins with seemingly modest

steps. She goes to a meeting, and then another. Hesistant at first, she gains

confidence as she speaks out. She keeps on despite a profoundly uncertain

context, as she and others act as best they can to challenge deeply intrenched

injustices, with little certainty of results. Had she and others given up after

her tenth or eleventh year of commitment, we might never have heard of

Montgomery.

Parks’s

journey suggests that change is the product of deliberate, incremental action,

whereby we join together to try to shape a better world. Sometimes our struggles

will fail, as did many earlier efforts of Parks, her peers, and her

predecessors. Other times they may bear modest fruits. And at times they will

trigger a miraculous outpouring of courage and heart–as happened with her

arrest and all that followed. For only when we act despite all our uncertainties

and doubts do we have the chance to shape history. 

Paul

Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical

Time (St Martin’s, 1999, $15.95, www.soulofacitizen.org), and of Generation at

the Crossroads, Nuclear Culture, and Hope in Hard Times

 

 

 

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