Saturday, October 29, 2005

Rosa Parks, American hero

This past week has been a busy one, with magazine-length blogging on same-sex marriage and two deadlines for the work that I actually get paid for. So I'm a little behind on current events.

As I'm sure you know, Rosa Parks died at the age of 92 -- just a couple of months short of the 50th anniversary of her rebellion against Jim Crow.

I thought I knew the Rosa Parks story, but it turns out I didn't. I thought she was arrested for taking a seat in the "whites only" section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But no, it was worse. According to the Voice of America obituary:

On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks had finished her work as a seamstress in a Montgomery, Alabama, store and boarded a city bus to go home. She took a seat in the 11th row, behind the seats reserved exclusively for white passengers, as required by the city's segregation law at that time. Blacks were entitled to seats from the 11th row to the rear of a bus. However, the city law said if the first 10 rows were filled, a white passenger could request a seat in the back of a bus. Rosa Parks remembered the bus was crowded with people standing in the aisle when several whites boarded. A white man told the driver he wanted a seat. The driver, who had the authority under city law, went to the rear of the bus and ordered Mrs. Parks and three other black passengers to get up. The others reluctantly stood. Rosa Parks, tired after a day of work, refused.

"When they stood up and I stayed where I was, he asked me if I was going to stand and I told him that 'no, I wasn't,' and he told me if I did not stand up he was going to have me arrested. And, I told him to go on and have me arrested," Mrs. Parks said.

The bus driver called the police and when they arrived he told them he needed the seats for his white passengers.

"He pointed at me and said, 'that one won't stand up.' The two policemen came near me and only one spoke to me. He asked me if the driver had asked me to stand up? I said, 'yes.' He asked me why I didn't stand up," Mrs. Parks said. "I told him I didn't think I should have to stand up. So I asked him: 'Why do you push us around?' And he told me, 'I don't know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.'"

Mrs. Parks said her decision to remain seated was based on her desire to be treated with decency and dignity:

"This was not the way I wanted to be treated after I had paid the same fare this man had paid - he hadn't paid any more than I did but I had worked all day and I can recall feeling quite annoyed and inconvenienced. And I was very determined to, in this way, show that I felt that I wanted to be treated decently on this bus or where ever I was," Mrs. Parks said.

As you read the story and it sinks in, it's almost hard to believe that there was a time when human beings in America were treated this way because they had black skin.

Of course, this was just one of the many indignities African-Americans had to put up with. The first chapter of Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom's wonderful book, America in Black and White, opens with this story:

In 1962, Colin and Alma Powell, recently married, packed all their belongings into his Volkswagen and left Fort Devens in Massachusetts for a military training course in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "Driving through Dixie with a new wife was ... unnerving," General Powell wrote in his 1995 autobiography. "I remember passing Woodbridge, Virginia," he went on, "and not finding even a gas station bathroom that we were allowed to use. I had to pull off the road so that we could relieve ourselves in the woods.

1962. That's just one year before I was born. This happened to a man, an outstanding American, who is alive today and who isn't that old.

It's profoundly humbling to think about this not-so-distant past. I don't feel guilt -- I wasn't even born at the time, and when I was born it was in a different country; but I do feel shame that my country, the country that I consider mine, allowed these things to happen. I know that racial, ethnic, and religious oppression has been an all-too-common feature of human history, common in every country for most of human history, and in all too many countries. But we were the only country founded on the idea that all men are created equal. So, yes, we deserve to be held to a higher standard. And we should accept nothing less.

Today, there are some people on the right who, partly as a reaction to "political correctness," the culture of victimhood, and racial demagoguery, act as if any acknowledgment of America's shameful history of mistreating blacks were just a sign of liberal wimpiness. Maybe they should read Rosa Parks's story, again. Even if, as some assert, she deliberately pushed matters to get arrested in order to challenge the city's segregation policy (and Parks firmly denies it, though by the time of her arrest she worked for the NAACP), so what? What happened to her was still outrageous. And what she did was still a small heroic act that helped change history.

Thinking about Rosa Parks and the civil rights struggle in America has made me think of a couple of more things.

1. Conservatives often warn about the dangers of recklessly tossing overboard established cultual norms and traditions. And they have a good point: often, traditions are there for a reason, and abandoning them may have unintended consequences. But excessive deference to established cultural norms and traditions is not good, either: it can lead us to accept odious injustices "just because." Just because it's been done that way as far back as we remember. A mere fifty years ago, most white Southerners and quite a few white Northerners -- many of them, no doubt, good and decent people in their own way -- thought it was perfectly acceptable to treat black people as subhuman. Who knows how history will judge our own attitudes fifty years hence?

2. On the other hand, can we stop comparing every social injustice to the oppression of blacks in America, and every progressive cause to the civil rights movement? Yes, many other groups have been discriminated against and mistreated, but not all wrongs are equal. Think of what segregration and the social subordination of blacks meant in day-to-day life; then think of claims that legalized domestic partnerships rather than actual marriage for same-sex couples amounts to being relegated to "the back of the bus." Think of white middle-class women in the 1970s making fatuous analogies between their state and that of blacks in the Jim Crow South. Surely, women, gays, and other groups can make their legitimate claims for justice and equality without piggybacking on the cause of blacks.

And now, back to Rosa Parks, a hero who helped remind America that it had betrayed its own ideals. I know little about Parks's life, but from what I do know, I think she was a fine example of true values. She never embraced hate, and she never embraced the pernicious idea of victimhood as an excuse for bad behavior. I was reminded of this when I read an excerpt from a 1995 interview with Parks in Christianity Today posted at Don't Let Me Stop You. Some time before the interview, Parks was robbed and beaten by an African-American youth who broke into her home. Discussing the incident, the interviewer asked, "What kind of social conditions would push someone to attack and rob an elderly woman?" Parks replied:

I wouldn't say these young people are being pushed. Many people these days go astray by using drugs and attack people in order to get money. They are making those choices.

I regret that some people, regardless of race, are in such a state of mind that they would harm an older person. Too many of today's youth don't know who they are or where they have been. And therefore, they don't know where they're going.

I live in hope that things will be better. If we get to children at an early age and see that they get the proper guidance, then they will not fall into that behavior that is harmful to themselves and others.

Amen. R.I.P., Rosa Parks.

Update: Excellent post Rosa Parks post by Jane Galt, with an interesting though at times depressing comments thread.

See also Tim Cavanaugh at Hit & Run eviscerate some incredibly tasteless "Rosa Parks on a bus to Heaven" editorial cartoons. One of which, amazingly, manages to turn Parks into an elderly white woman (click on the image for the full-size picture):

Update: Juan Williams has an excellent op-ed in the New York Times discussing some less-known details of Rosa Parks's famous bus ride.

The truth is that Mrs. Parks was not someone who one day, out of the blue, decided to defy the local custom of blacks sitting in the back of the bus. That story leads some people to the cynical conclusion, once voiced by a character in the movie "Barbershop," that all Rosa Parks did was sit on her bottom. That's not only insulting but a distortion that takes away the powerful truth that Rosa Parks worked hard to develop her own political consciousness and then worked hard to build a politically aware black community in the heart of Dixie.

Before that one moment of defiance on the bus she was a civil rights activist who had long fought to get voting rights for black people in Alabama. Apparently it is too confusing to mention that as far back as 1943 she had refused to follow the rules requiring black people to enter city buses through the back door. And it invites too much complexity to mention that in the late 40's, as an official of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., she was forming a coalition with a group of black and white women in Montgomery to fight segregated seating on city buses.

Her education in rural Pine Level, Ala., came at Jim Crow schools that taught her only enough to work for white people as a washerwoman, maid or seamstress. In Montgomery, she worked mending dresses. One of her employers was Virginia Durr, the wife of a powerful white lawyer. Mrs. Durr, a member of the interracial Women's Political Council, became Mrs. Parks's ally in a long-term effort to use political pressure to end the daily indignity of riding segregated buses.

Mrs. Durr introduced Mrs. Parks to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The school taught strategies to empower white and black people to get better wages, to register to vote and organize as a political force. Even before Highlander, Mrs. Parks had championed the rights of a teenager, Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in March 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to white people on a Montgomery bus.

All of this preceded the moment when Rosa Parks refused to give up her own seat on the bus. Even after her arrest she had to agree to fight the charges of violating segregation laws, and risk angering the white establishment in town and losing her job. Her husband and her mother told her she was going to be lynched for becoming the named plaintiff in a challenge to segregation. She made a deliberate decision to take up the fight. There was nothing spontaneous about this. And she knew that she would not be fighting alone.

The courage of black men and women who fought segregation is inspiring; but it's also heartening to know that from the start, there were white women and men of conscience who fought on the right side of this battle.


Abe said...

Thanks for the link, Cathy.

I'm a longtime Reason subscriber (since the early 70s, IIRC), so I was pleased to find your blog.


Cathy Young said...

Thanks, Abe!

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Anonymous said...

Wow. It's quite unbelievable that there was a time that racial discrimination in the US has been this bad. Imagine? An "white only" seat in the bus? And a "black" passenger really had to give his seat to the "white" passenger if no other seat is available? Pretty devastating! Physics Games

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