Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks died yesterday at the age of 92.  One of my regrets in life is that I’ve managed to see Richard Nixon and Hunter Thompson live yet I passed up a chance to see Rosa Parks accept an award from the Children’s Defense Fund when I was in Washington D.C. in the mid nineties.   This may have been one of her last public appearances. While she led a long active life, Rosa Parks is remembered for one act of defiance, her refusal to give up a seat in the colored section of the bus to a white man when the white part of the bus happened to be full.  Parks is often called the mother of the Civil Rights movement, something that tends to minimize individuals like Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells Barnett, Harriet Tubman,, and others who came before her and Fannie Lou Hamer (one of her contemporaries).  For whatever reason, she became a maternal icon in our culture.  In that iconography, she turned into this innocent seamstress who one day just had enough and happened to stand up for her dignity.  After that seemingly single act of giving birth, she was then more or less put on permanent maternity leave from being an activist or an individual with anything much to say beyond that act.
At least that’s the way our culture tends to remember her.

It’s worth noting that Rosa Parks died in Detroit.  After Montgomery, she couldn’t find work.  After many years, she found employment as an aide for Representative John Conyers for close to twenty years.  The iconography also tends to gloss over the fact that Parks was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and she was a trained activist before that day. She had worked on the Scotsboro Boys case as early as 193 and as youth advisor to the NAACP actively campaigned for better library facilities for black youth in Montgomery   She was not the first black person to refuse to give up her seat on a bus.  She was the first one the NAACP threw its national resources behind since Homer Plessy and the Creole Society challenged streetcar segregation in New Orleans at the end of the 19th century.  It’s notable that President Bush passed over these aspects of her history in calling her an “icon” today and saying that she made America “better” and thus suggesting that her work was completed.

Many people remember that Montgomery was the moment that brought Martin Luther King to national prominence.  Too many forget that at the end of his life, King had broadened his cause from desegregation to poverty and his opposition to the war in Vietnam.  To him it was all connected. I doubt that he saw the journey ending just because the US has a Ferragamo clad Secretary of State whose father was one of his supporters.    

I visited Detroit on two occasions in the late nineties.  The most segregated schools in America are in northern cities.  Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland have public high schools that are entirely black.  Few of those schools do well academically.  At the time, the running story was the state of Michigan offered free tuition to state universities for any Africa-American student who had better than a 3.0 gpa.  The city of Detroit supposedly had one African-American male who qualified for the scholarship.  I never confirmed it, but if it was an exaggeration it likely wasn’t far off.  The local schools generally didn’t welcome outside visitors or even observations by parents.  The African- American administrators claimed that parents might show up at schools drunk or high and embarrass their children and cited that as their reason for not having a visitation policy.

In 1994, a young black man came into Rosa Parks's Detroit area home and hit her and robbed her after realizing who she was. She personally forgave him after he was sentenced to prison. One thing is clear to me from reading interviews with Rosa Parks, she was about much more than a seat on a bus.  She didn’t stop the work after she won her court case and I’m certain that she was convinced that America had a long ways to go.  The best way to honor Rosa Parks’s memory is to recognize that the bus that may have started its route in Montgomery in 1955 still has a way to go and that we must continue that work.


At 10/26/2005 04:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

chancelucky -- I wrote some of this elsewhere but realized I couldn't say it much better. I take the opportunity to expand these thoughts here.

I grew up on a farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the Fifties. There were the water fountains with 'Colored' & 'White.' The only place a traveling 'negro' family might rest their head along the several hundred miles on the Big Highway was down a dusty dirt road with a peeled and faded sign -- not even Dew Drop Inn, but only 'Colored.' What most folks not from those places or times cannot begin to imagine was how utterly brave 'just staying seated' was in those years.

Some say Ms. Parks is remembered "solely for refusing to give in to injustice" -- there is no "solely" about it. 'Nice' southern white men could be so suddenly vicious, she could well have been followed off the bus and beaten to death or raped. The bitter meanness of many of the white people with whom I grew up is all but untranslatable in our time now. The gracious, mint-julep-sipping southern gentleman would turn into a slavering pitbull if crossed by a 'colored' person. It was jekyll-&-hyde.

You can see in the wonderful pictures of Ms. Parks in her youth how grounded she was. There are few enough among us who would possibly have dared to "sit our ass down" in a society like the underbelly of the American South back then. The things I saw 'nice' upper middle-class white people do and heard them say in those years were bloodcurdling. There was no recrimination whatever for perpetrating the vilest of the Shadow upon 'colored' people. It was terrifying and disgusting. (Think Abu Ghraib being done by your neighbors & nobody blinking an eye.)

Having done a fair amount of civil disobedience, I can tell you that the hardest thing is to just not move. It's the quintessence of non-violent action, but if you're standing, your knees go to jelly. Those kind of 'authorities' are very used to having intimidation 'work.' It not working is a real big threat to their pipsqueak bully self-grandiosity.

What Rosa Parks did was not just thrust upon her. She deeply dared. I will always be inspired by her turning rage into courage. Thank you Rosa Parks.

We surely must continue the work.

At 10/26/2005 08:58:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
I probably did diminish the actual courage it took for Rosa Parks to do what she did, by not spending a lot of time on what she's best known for. My main point was that she was that same courageous person throughout her life, not just one day on the bus when she happened to not feel like moving.

by not moving she helped to catalyze a movement., but it wasn't the product of a single decision improvised on a single day. Rosa Parks exhibited the same courage throughout her life and it was the product of hard work, planning, and, yes, extraordinary courage. And as we both say, we have much work left to do, despite the President's suggestions otherwise.

At 10/27/2005 02:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gosh, CL, what was I thinking?

Of course the mission is accomplished! as Our Leader says.

The Rich ARE Richer!

At 10/27/2005 12:42:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

The rich not only get richer, they almost never have to ride city busses.

In fact, race apartheid may be socially incorrect these days, but income apartheid is increasingly becoming the order of the day, hence the urban school issues I mentioned in my post.


Post a Comment

<< Home