October 30, 2005
Getting the Rosa Parks Legacy Right

By Thomas Bray

Meeting Rosa Parks for the first time, at a luncheon in the mid-1980s honoring inner-city students who had earned scholarships to college, was a bit jarring. Her legend was so large; her physical stature so tiny and her voice so soft.

It was a reminder of how the true source of power, the true fulcrum of history, is a good idea – in Rosa Parks’ case, the power of the idea that America should live up to the promises of its founding documents.

No, Parks didn’t launch a civil rights revolution simply because she was tired and wanted to sit down. By 1955 she already was an experienced activist within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, notes historian Douglas Brinkley, more radicalized even than her husband, who had helped defend the Scottsboro boys. But that doesn’t blemish the moral courage of what she did.

Mother Parks, as she is known in the black community, out of deference to her role in mothering the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and ‘60s, was a hero because she was the one who decided, even knowing the risks, that the time had finally come to say “enough” to the sheer indignity of it all.

In so doing, she helped to liberate all Americans from the ugly, dead hand of Jim Crow. For this, she deserves a permanent memorial, perhaps a statue of her “standing up by sitting down” in a prominent place in Washington. Most of all, though, she deserves to have her legacy rightly understood.

There will no doubt be some confusion on that point in the days to come. Should the focus be on the one of the most inspiring and uplifting movements in world history, or on the victimology popular among latter-day civil rights leaders, who assert that African Americans are still trapped in a racial miasma of poverty, discrimination and de facto segregation? Didn’t New Orleans show us how little has really changed since 1955?

But that would be to profoundly misunderstand – and even dishonor – the Parks’ memory, as well link the Parks legacy to a badly flawed idea that lacks solid historical basis. After all, if so little progress had been made, why honor Rosa Parks at all? Besides, the stark fact of the matter is that material conditions for African Americans already were getting dramatically better by the time the legal edifice of Jim Crow came crashing down.

As Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom point out in their magisterial study of the black condition in America, America in Black and White, published in 1997, between 1940 and 1960, when the civil rights revolution took full hold, black family poverty had already declined to 47 percent from 87 percent, a historic achievement. (By 1995 it had declined to 26 percent.)

Enough blacks, in other words, were becoming wealthy enough to afford the automobiles – the unsung instruments of liberation in Montgomery – that allowed them to boycott the buses and still get to work. Beginning in the mid-1960s, however, Utopian efforts to force-feed development, such as the War on Poverty and affirmative action, not only failed to accelerate progress but in important ways proved counterproductive for a significant chunk of the black population.

Rosa Parks herself, who fled to Detroit in hopes of escaping the continued harassment and racism she suffered in Montgomery, was later burglarized and beaten by a young black man in her adopted but badly de-moralized city. More recently she had to defend herself from the use of her name in a piece of rap music underscoring the cultural degradation implicit in the notion that individuals can’t ennoble themselves.

As Rosa Parks understood, the civil rights revolution was not about material things, even if freedom might bring a better material life in its wake, as it tends to do. Her life was about something far more profound – human liberty, the right to be treated equally before the law, the right to choose one’s own path. In other words, human dignity, pure and simple – like Mother Parks herself.

Thomas Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

Thomas Bray

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