THE REAL ROSA PARKS
THE REAL ROSA PARKS
Paul Rogat Loeb
We learn much from how we present our heroes. A few years ago, on MartinLuther King. Day, I was interviewed on CNN. So was Rosa Parks, by phonefrom Los Angeles. "We're very honored to have her," said the host. "RosaParks was the woman who wouldn't go to the back of the bus. She wouldn'tget up and give her seat in the white section to a white person. Thatset in motion the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned RosaParks 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 standardrendition and one repeated even in many of her obituaries--stripped theMontgomery boycott of all of its context. Before refusing to give up herbus seat, Parks had been active for twelve years in the local NAACPchapter, serving as its secretary. The summer before her arrest, she'dhad attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee's labor and civilrights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd met anolder generation of civil rights activists, like South Carolina teacherSeptima Clark, and discussed the recent Supreme Court decision banning"separate-but-equal" schools. During this period of involvement andeducation, Parks had become familiar with previous challenges tosegregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier,successfully eased some restrictions; a bus boycott in Baton Rouge wonlimited gains two years before Parks was arrested; and the previousspring, a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back ofthe bus, causing the NAACP to consider a legal challenge until it turnedout that she was unmarried and pregnant, and therefore a poor symbol fora campaign.
In short, Rosa Parks didn't make a spur-of-the-moment decision. Shedidn't single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts, but shewas part of an existing movement for change, at a time when success wasfar from certain. We all know Parks's name, but few of us know aboutMontgomery NAACP head E.D. Nixon, who served as one of her mentors andfirst got Martin Luther King involved. Nixon carried people's suitcaseson the trains, and was active in the Brotherhood of Sleeping CarPorters, the union founded by legendary civil rights activist A. PhilipRandolph. He played a key role in the campaign. No one talks of him, anymore than they talk of JoAnn Robinson, who taught nearby at anunderfunded and segregated Black college and whose Women's PoliticalCouncil distributed the initial leaflets following Parks's arrest.Without the often lonely work of people like Nixon, Randolph, andRobinson, Parks would likely have never taken her stand, and if she had,it would never have had the same impact.
This in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of Parks'srefusal to give up her seat. But it reminds us that this tremendouslyconsequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on allthe humble and frustrating work that Parks and others undertook earlieron. It also reminds us that Parks's initial step of getting involved wasjust as courageous and critical as the stand on the bus that all of ushave heard about.
People like Parks shape our models of social commitment. Yet fromresponses to talks I've given throughout the country, most citizens donot know the full story of her involvement. And the conventionalstripped-down retelling creates a standard so impossible to meet, it mayactually make it harder for us to get involved, inadvertently removingaway Parks's most powerful lessons of hope.
This conventional portrayal suggests that social activists come out ofnowhere, to suddenly take dramatic stands. It implies that we act withthe greatest impact when we act alone, at least initially. And thatchange occurs instantly, as opposed to building on a series ofoften-invisible actions. The myth of Parks as lone activist reinforces anotion that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least aneffective one, has to be a larger-than-life figure--someone with moretime, energy, courage, vision, or knowledge than any normal person couldever possess. This belief pervades our society, in part because themedia tends not to represent historical change as the work of ordinaryhuman beings, which it almost always is.
Once we enshrine our heroes on pedestals, it becomes hard for meremortals to measure up in our eyes. However individuals speak out, we'retempted to dismiss their motives, knowledge, and tactics asinsufficiently grand or heroic. We fault them for not being in commandof every fact and figure, or being able to answer every question put tothem. We fault ourselves as well, for not knowing every detail, or forharboring uncertainties and doubts. We find it hard to imagine thatordinary human beings with ordinary flaws might make a criticaldifference in worthy social causes.
Yet those who act have their own imperfections, and ample reasons tohold back. "I think it does us all a disservice," says a youngAfrican-American activist in Atlanta named Sonya Tinsley, "when peoplewho work for social change are presented as saints--so much more noblethan the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they wereborn they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circleof light. But I'm much more inspired learning how people succeededdespite their failings and uncertainties. It's a much less intimidatingimage. 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'sMorehouse professors, in which he mentioned how much King had struggledwhen he first came to college, getting only a 'C,' for example, in hisfirst philosophy course. "I found that very inspiring, when I heard it,"Sonya said, "given all that King achieved. It made me feel that justabout anything was possible."
Our culture's misreading of the Rosa Parks story speaks to a moregeneral collective amnesia, where we forget the examples that might mostinspire our courage, hope, and conscience. Apart from obvious times ofmilitary conflict, most of us know next to nothing of the many battlesordinary men and women fought to preserve freedom, expand the sphere ofdemocracy, and create a more just society. Of the abolitionist and civilrights movements, we at best recall a few key leaders--and often misreadtheir actual stories. We know even less about the turn-of-the-centurypopulists who challenged entrenched economic interests and fought for a"cooperative commonwealth." Who these days can describe the unionmovements that ended 80-hour work weeks at near-starvation wages? Whoknows the origin of the social security system, now threatened bysystematic attempts to privatize it? How did the women's suffragemovement spread to hundreds of communities, and gather enough strengthto prevail?
As memories of these events disappear, we lose the knowledge ofmechanisms that grassroots social movements have used successfully inthe past to shift public sentiment and challenge entrenchedinstitutional power. Equally lost are the means by which theirparticipants managed to keep on and eventually prevail in circumstancesat least as harsh as those we face today.Think again about the different ways one can frame Rosa Parks's historicaction. In the prevailing myth, Parks decides to act almost on a whim,in isolation. She's a virgin to politics, a holy innocent. The lessonseems to be that if any of us suddenly got the urge to do somethingequally heroic, that would be great. Of course most of us don't, so wewait our entire lives to find the ideal moment.
Parks's real story conveys a far more empowering moral. She begins withseemingly modest steps. She goes to a meeting, and then another, helpingbuild the community that in turn supported her path. Hesitant at first,she gains confidence as she speaks out. She keeps on despite aprofoundly uncertain context, as she and others act as best they can tochallenge deeply entrenched injustices, with little certainty ofresults. Had she and others given up after her tenth or eleventh year ofcommitment, we might never have heard of Montgomery.
Parks also reminds us that even in a seemingly losing cause, one personmay unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who maythen go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. RosaParks's husband Raymond convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting,the initial step on a path that brought her to that fateful day on thebus in Montgomery. But who got Raymond Parks involved? And why did thatperson take the trouble to do so? What experiences shaped their outlook,forged their convictions? The links in any chain of influence are toonumerous, too complex to trace. But being aware that such chains exist,that we can choose to join them, and that lasting change doesn't occurin their absence, is one of the primary ways to sustain hope, especiallywhen our actions seem too insignificant to amount to anything.
Finally, Parks's journey suggests that change is the product ofdeliberate, incremental action, whereby we join together to try to shapea better world. Sometimes our struggles will fail, as did many earlierefforts of Parks, her peers, and her predecessors. Other times they maybear modest fruits. And at times they will trigger a miraculousoutpouring of courage and heart--as happened with her arrest and allthat followed. For only when we act despite all our uncertainties anddoubts do we have the chance to shape history.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a LittleWhile: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3political book of fall 2004 by the History Channel and the American BookAssociation, and winner of the Nautilus Award for best social changebook of the year. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: LivingWith Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive hismonthly articles email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: subscribepaulloeb-articles
Author InterviewMike MarquseeWicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960shttp://www.sevenstories.com/Book/index.cfm?GCOI=58322100174020
Can you tell ZNet, please, what your book is about? What is it trying tocommunicate?
Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s (Seven Stories) tells twointertwining stories of the 1960s, of an intransigently individualartist and of the social movement with which he interacted. One shedslight on the other. Dylan was hailed at an early age as the voice of ageneration, but rebelled against the label and set off on an artisticjourney of his own, creating the innovatory and majestic music of themid-1960s albums. Yet these "anti-political" songs resonate withpolitical, social, and cultural concerns.
Tracing the thread that binds Dylan's restless art to its rapidlyshifting environment is the book's primary purpose. However, I don't seethe songs as transparent reflections of the times. Dylan was not apassive lightning rod, an impersonal conductor of great historiccurrents. Rather, he was a navigator of those currents. He didn't panderto his followers; he interrogated them.
My book is not an exercise in 1960s romanticism. In Dylan's eloquentindictments of militarism and racism, his visions of a society ruled bygreed and governed by lies, and in his tortured interaction with histimes, there are lessons and warnings for the present and future. "Tolive outside the law you must be honest/ And I know you always say thatyou agree."
Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does thecontent come from? What went into making the book what it is?
I grew up in the States in the 1960s and was a Dylan fan from age 13.Discovering him, getting to grips with his work, trying to keep pacewith him were formative experiences, both politically and aesthetically.I had written about Dylan in my book on Muhammad Ali, Redemption Song,but felt there was much more to explore. So I returned to the music -- aunique treasury -- and at the same time to the events surrounding thesongs. In doing so, I drew not only on published sources but also my ownrecollections.
Meanwhile, a new anti-war movement was on the rise, and a new generationof activists was struggling with the dilemmas of movement-building --and discovering Dylan. Sometimes, I think new activists are too dauntedby the 1960s. Self-indulgent celebration of our generation and of Dylandoes them no favors. The legacy of the era is rich, but only if it isexamined critically.
What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute orachieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for thebook, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happyabout the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it wasworth all the time and effort?
I hope that the book will send people back to Dylan's glorious songswith a sharpened appetite and a keener appreciation of their genius. Ihope that they will be able to draw from the songs some of theinspiration, solace, and stimulation I've found in them. I also hope thebook will add something to readers' understanding of the complexities ofthe great social movements of the 1960s and of the relationship betweenartists and movements in general.
Finally, I hope the book will help us rescue the sharp and challengingedge of both Dylan's work and the struggles of the 1960s fromsentimentality, caricature, and the packaged banality of the corporatemedia.