By Jeanne Theoharis
Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer
To honor the centennial of the birth of Rosa Parks on Feb. 4, 1913, the United States Postal Service issued a Rosa Parks stamp. Last year, a stone carving of Parks was added to the National Cathedral. In 2005, she became the first woman and second African American to lie in honor in the nation’s capital and, through a special act of Congress, a statue of her was ordered placed in the Capital.
Yet these tributes to Rosa Parks rest on a narrow and distorted vision of her legacy. As the story goes, a quiet Montgomery, Ala., seamstress with a single act challenged Southern segregation, catapulted a young Martin Luther King Jr. into national leadership and ushered in the modern civil rights movement.
Parks’ memorialization promotes an improbable children’s story of social change — one not-angry woman sat down, the country was galvanized and structural racism was vanquished.
Parks’ Fable Diminishes History of Action
This fable diminishes the extensive history of collective action against racial injustice and underestimates the widespread opposition to the black freedom movement, which for decades treated Parks’ political activities as “un-American.” Most important, it skips over the enduring scourge of racial inequality in American society — a reality that Parks continued to highlight and challenge — and serves contemporary political interests that treat racial injustice as a thing of the past.
A more thorough accounting of Parks’ political life offers a different set of reasons for the nation to honor her. Laboring in the 1940s and 1950s in relative obscurity, Parks and her colleague E.D. Nixon were among a small group who sought to transform Montgomery’s NAACP into a more activist branch, determined to register their dissent, even if they could deal no significant blow to White supremacy.
Her stand led to significant economic and personal hardship for her family. In the early days of the boycott, both Rosa and her husband, Raymond Parks, lost their jobs.
Eight months after the year-long boycott ended, still unable to find work, in poor health and continuing to face death threats, they left Montgomery for Detroit. There she did not rest, but joined with new and old comrades to fight the racism of her new hometown and American society more broadly.
Her Hero—Malcolm X
One of the greatest distortions of the Parks fable is the way it portrays her as meek, missing the resolute political sensibility that identified Malcolm X as her personal hero.
Arriving in Detroit in 1957, she spent more than half her life fighting racial injustice in the Jim Crow North. Describing the city as the “Promised Land that wasn’t,” the Parks family lived in the “heart of the ghetto” and found racism in Detroit “almost as widespread as Montgomery.”
Having volunteered on his upstart political campaign, Parks was hired in 1965 by the newly elected Rep. John Conyers, Jr., whom she helped win his congressional seat, to be part of his Detroit staff. There she worked on issues such as police brutality, open housing, welfare and job discrimination — the plagues of Northern racism.
Her long-standing political commitments to self-defense, Black history, economic justice, police accountability and black political empowerment intersected with key aspects of the Black Power movement, and she took part in numerous mobilizations in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Outrage, Tenacity and Bravery
To the end of her life, Parks continued to stress the enduring need for social change, reminding Americans “not [to] become comfortable with the gains we have made in the last 40 years.” That lifetime of steadfastness and outrage, tenacity and bravery, is what deserves national veneration.
Honoring her legacy means summoning similar audacity. It requires acknowledging that America is not a post-racial society and that the blight of racial and social injustice is deep and manifest. It entails a profound recommitment to the goals for which she spent a lifetime fighting — a criminal justice system fair and just to people of color, unfettered voting rights, educational access and equity, real assistance to the poor, an end to U.S. wars of occupation and Black history in all parts of school curricula.
Finally, it means heeding her words to Spelman College students: “Don’t give up, and don’t say the movement is dead.”