Monday, 24 October 2005

Rosa Parks

On the day of her passing, we thank Rosa Parks for her important role in bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. But we also thank those who came before her, those who worked with her, and those who have come since.

The Rosa Parks story is frequently taken out of context, and there is a misimpression that it just happened one day out of the blue. Parks earned her renown after years of involvement. From Paul Loeb's article:

[the] familiar rendition of her story had stripped the Montgomery, Ala., boycott of its most important context. Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had spent 12 years helping lead the local NAACP chapter. The summer before, Parks had attended a 10-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 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning "separate but equal" schools.

In other words, Parks didn't come out of nowhere. She didn't single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts. Instead, 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 the humble and frustrating work that she and others did earlier on. It reminds us that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the fabled moment when she refused to move to the back of the bus.

As a white male in 2005, I live in greater freedom to the extent that oppression has been lifted from others. One of Martin Luther King Jr.'s great insights was in recognizing the oppressive effect of oppression not only on the oppressed, but also on the oppressor and upon those expected to take the role of the oppressor. To the extent that inequity was still palpable in the sixties when I was growing up in Georgia, I can tell you that it was unpleasant for me. Of course it was ever so much worse for those on the other end of the inequity.

[Addendum: For additional background on Rosa Parks's action, the role of others, and the Montgomery bus boycott, please see Sheelzebub's excellent post at Preemptive Karma.]

1 comment:

-epm said...

While the background of Rosa Parks is interesting and should not be buried or diminished, often the legend is more instructive than the biography. For "Rosa Parks" the icon that lesson is to never underestimate the power of peaceful resistance in the face of oppressive powers.