On the good, better, and best ways to remember an iconic moment and figure.
Given that Rosa Parks has to be on the very short list for the best-remembered African Americans (and historical Americans period), it would seem silly to argue that we should remember her more than we do. If anything, many historians and journalists have argued that narratives of the Civil Rights movement focus too fully on Parks as an origin point, and not enough on all the others who contributed to and influenced the movement. While it’s always good to broaden our collective memories, I think our starting point for remembering Rosa Parks is indeed a good one, and that it’s both appropriate and American (in the best sense) that we connect the movement’s origins not only to public leaders like King, but also to a much more private individual like Parks.
On the other hand, Park’s famous stand (or rather seat) was neither as private nor as individual as our dominant narratives emphasize. Parks (born Rosa McCauley) had been connected to the NAACP since her 1932 marriage to Raymond Parks, already an active member of the organization; she herself joined the Montgomery chapter in 1943, and was elected the chapter’s secretary in the same year. She had thus been active in the civil rights organization for a dozen years (and connected to it for more than two decades) by the time of her fateful December 1955 bus ride; and moreover, four months earlier she had attended an August 1955 mass meeting in Montgomery at which activist T.R.M. Howard outlined the many different ways African Americans could advocate for their rights in their own communities. All of which is to say, it’s far from coincidental that Parks’ refusal to give up her seat precipated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an activist effort led by organizations like the NAACP and activists like Howard (among many others of course).
Yet if it would be better for us to remember that Rosa Parks spent her lifetime working in and with communities and organizations dedicated to civil rights, it seems to me that the best way to remember her and her bus ride would be to push one step further still, linking the private and public sides to her action. After all, however much her refusal to give up her seat may have been part of a larger strategy or effort, it was also a profoundly individual, and profoundly courageous, choice; that August 1955 meeting was in response to the Emmett Till lynching, a stark reminder that every African American in the Jim Crow South was at all times in danger of violent attack and death—and certainly that any who fought the power, who bucked the system in the ways that Park did (or, indeed, in far less overt ways, like Till), were doubly at risk for such terrorism. Which is to say, Parks’ connection to and knowledge of her city and region’s civil rights histories don’t diminish her individual action in the slightest—instead, they amplify its impressiveness.
Next complex history tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other Civil Rights histories or stories you’d highlight?
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