If you've read the eulogies to Rosa Parks today, you've probably read the same story I have about the event that made her a civil rights legend: on December 1, 1955, a tired seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama gets on a bus, sits down, is told to stand up for a white passenger, refuses, gets arrested, and the freedom movement is born.
This focus on the defiant acts of one individual quickly became a symbol of the entire civil rights struggle -- a myth especially liked by the media, with their interest in creating celebrities and telling personal stories, as opposed to the stories of broad movements for change.
Of course, the reality is much more complicated and interesting. There's a whole alternative story about Rosa Parks, which you can see in jre's post today at DKos, as well as our recent post here. Another well-known take is that of journalist Paul Loeb, in his much-forwarded piece "The Real Rosa Parks." Here's a key passage:
[The familiar rendition of Parks' story strips] the Montgomery, Ala., boycott of its most important context. Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had spent 12 years helping lead the local NAACP chapter. The summer before, Parks had attended a 10-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 and discussed the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning "separate but equal" schools.
In other words, Parks didn't come out of nowhere. She didn't single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts. Instead, she was part of an existing movement for change at a time when success was far from certain. This in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of her refusal to give up her seat. But it does remind us that this tremendously consequential act might never have taken place without the humble and frustrating work that she and others did earlier on. It reminds us that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the fabled moment when she refused to move to the back of the bus.
I couldn't agree more. Our history books and media caricatures don't tell us enough about the daily, grinding work of grassroots organizing and movement-building that went into pivotal events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott -- both on the part of Rosa Parks and countless unsung heroes that make up such society-changing struggles.
At the same time, I think it's also true that all movements have their symbols, whether it's Rosa Parks 50 years ago, or Cindy Sheehan in the peace movement today. These figures have helped draw badly-needed attention to previously ignored causes and struggles. They've also helped personalize and humanize issues that can often drift into muddy abstractions.
So on this day of Rosa Parks' passing, let's honor her actions on December 1, 1955, as a true movement hero. At the same time, we'll remember her longer-term battle, and the broader movement of which she was a part, which included thousands of risk-taking people in the trenches who helped -- in the words of another leader Parks helped elevate to national prominence, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- bend the arc of the universe towards justice.
Here are short statements from two of my favorite freedom movement historians, Charles Payne and John Hope Franklin, both here in North Carolina.