October 30, 2005
Getting the Rosa Parks Legacy Right
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.)
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.
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
Bray is a Detroit News columnist.