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151The Real Rosa Parks

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    Oct 31, 2005
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      THE REAL ROSA PARKS
      Paul Rogat 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 and one repeated even in many of her obituaries--
      stripped the Montgomery boycott of all of its context. Before
      refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had been active for twelve
      years in the local NAACP chapter, serving as its secretary. The
      summer before her arrest, she'd 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, like South Carolina teacher Septima Clark, 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, Rosa Parks didn't make a spur-of-the-moment decision. She
      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. We all know Parks's name, but few of us
      know about Montgomery NAACP head E.D. Nixon, who served as one of her
      mentors and first got Martin Luther King involved. Nixon carried
      people's suitcases
      on the trains, and was active in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
      Porters, the union founded by legendary civil rights activist A.
      Philip Randolph. He played a key role in the campaign. No one talks
      of him, any more than they talk of JoAnn Robinson, who taught nearby
      at an underfunded and segregated Black college and whose Women's
      Political
      Council distributed the initial leaflets following Parks's arrest.
      Without the often lonely work of people like Nixon, Randolph, and
      Robinson, 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's refusal to give up her seat. But it reminds us that this
      tremendously consequential act, along with everything that followed,
      depended on all the humble and frustrating work that Parks and others
      undertook earlier on. It also reminds us that Parks's initial step of
      getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the stand on
      the bus that all of us have heard about.

      People like Parks shape our models of social commitment. Yet from
      responses to talks I've given throughout the country, most citizens
      do not know the full story of her involvement. And the conventional
      stripped-down retelling creates a standard so impossible to meet, it
      may actually make it harder for us to get involved, inadvertently
      removing away Parks's most powerful lessons of hope.

      This conventional 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, at least initially. And
      that change occurs instantly, as opposed to building on a series of
      often-invisible actions. The myth of Parks as lone activist
      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, hope, 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, now
      threatened by systematic attempts to privatize it? 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. 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,
      helping build the community that in turn supported her path. Hesitant
      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 entrenched 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 also reminds us that even in a seemingly losing cause, one
      person may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third,
      who may then go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of
      it. Rosa Parks'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 the bus in Montgomery. But who got Raymond Parks
      involved? And why did that person take the trouble to do so? What
      experiences shaped their outlook,
      forged their convictions? The links in any chain of influence are too
      numerous, too complex to trace. But being aware that such chains
      exist, that we can choose to join them, and that lasting change
      doesn't occur in their absence, is one of the primary ways to sustain
      hope, especially when our actions seem too insignificant to amount to
      anything.

      Finally, 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 Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little
      While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3
      political book of fall 2004 by the History Channel and the American
      Book Association, and winner of the Nautilus Award for best social
      change book of the year. His previous books include Soul of a
      Citizen: Living
      With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive
      his
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