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October 26, 2005
Rosa Parks, revisited

I've been pondering the whole Rosa Parks question.

As discussed in the comments (and on David Corn's blog and scroll down) the iconographic story of a tired woman with sore feet hitting the wall and deciding that she'd had enough and just couldn't take it any longer...isn't quite accurate.

Rosa Parks wasn't just a woman who stepped forth from the crowd that day on that bus. She was a woman who had investigated, explored, and discussed acts of civil disobedience, including the one she finally undertook.

This was not the case of a single brave figure standing up (or, sitting down, as the case may be) against the weight of oppression.

The moment that triggered the massive turmoil of the Civil Rights movement was not an unexpected spark. It was a planned act of civil disobedience.

In the USofA, there's a whole mythos around the idea of a single individual standing up against "The Man" or any other name you care to use for an array of corrupt or evil forces. (I'd imagine that this is where the whole Superman thing came from.) This is what was presented to us on the evening news and in the evening papers. A single tired woman who just wanted to sit down on the bus. This is what we reacted to.

But it wasn't like that. It wasn't spontaneous and it wasn't unpremeditated. The NAACP was behind her. She took action...knowing that she was being supported. That there were those who would step forward to defend her. Standing up for your rights with the massed weight of a large organization behind you isn't quite how you achieve the status of an American Icon, is it?

Or, is it?

I've been pondering that for hours.

She investigated civil disobedience in the NAACP meetings. I can't believe that part of their discussions did not center around the dangers. Potential consequences. The myriads of ways something could go wrong. The possibility that the public wouldn't respond. That anyone so acting was facing personal violence. Arrest. Possible abuse at the hands of the authorities, out of the public eye. (Don't believe it? Don't be na´ve.)

And her NAACP group may have hoped for support from the general population...but what kind of support? A few letters to the editor? A few bodies milling around outside the police station? A few activists bussed in from surrounding states? A few people refusing to ride the bus for a few weeks? What did they expect?

Did they expect a national uprising? No. They may have prayed for one, but they couldn't have predicted it. Rosa might well have wound up behind bars with just a few friends and the local arm of the NAACP struggling to protect her.

Rose Parks is an American Hero. Support or no support, she acted. I don't think there's any way, in this day and age, to enable people to understand the bravery it took for a Black woman in the South to refuse to give up that bus seat. Anything might have happened on that bus that day, and Rosa knew it.

Regardless of the assistance waiting in the wings, in the moment that Rosa Parks acted, she acted alone. The weight of her action, and the consequences, were on her shoulders.

The sheer, raw courage she displayed that day still astonishes me.

In the moment she refused to yield, Rosa Parks placed herself against the arrogant presumption of a nation. She challenged the USofA's smug view of itself as a land of equal and burgeoning opportunity. She exposed our hypocrisy and our weaknesses, and she became the face of our national shame.

This is the image of Rosa Parks that captured the imagination of the country, and of a generation.

So, you know? Yes. Rosa Parks is an American Icon.

The fact that she turned out to be smarter, better-informed, and better prepared than I thought? Is just an impressive bonus.

Update: Read this.

Posted by AnneZook at 10:53 AM