As I write this column, Rosa Parks, an icon of the US civil rights movement, lies in state in the Capitol Rotunda. Parks’ iconic status hides a vital question. What are we celebrating in her passing? The mainstream media celebrate a woman whose activism, civil disobedience, and willingness to extend rights more broadly runs against the spirit of the age. The recent commemorations of Parks’ life read as narratives that celebrate America as the quintessentially just society. Her brave acts forced this nation finally to embrace and implement the full meaning of its professed faith in the rights and equality of all citizens. As Condoleezza Rice recently suggested, without Parks’ struggle she could not have become secretary of state.
A closer look at Parks’ struggle opens other interpretations of her significance. Perhaps the greatest gift Parks can bequeath is a willingness to ask further questions. Have we as a nation extended basic rights as broadly as we claim and are our currently sanctioned list of rights sufficiently broad?
It was the common sense of Southern society, inscribed both in law and in social custom, that whites enjoyed preferential treatment on buses and the other “public” transit. Rosa Parks challenged this common sense, but she was not the first. The recent obituary of Parks in the New York Times tells an often forgotten part of her story: “Her arrest was the answer to prayers... Blacks had been arrested, and even killed, for disobeying bus drivers. They had begun to build a case around a 15-year-old girl's arrest for refusing to give up her seat, and Mrs. Parks had been among those raising money for the girl's defense. But when they learned that the girl was pregnant, they decided that she was an unsuitable symbol for their cause. Mrs. Parks, on the other hand, was regarded as ‘one of the finest citizens of Montgomery -- not one of the finest Negro citizens -- but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery,’ Dr. King said.”
It is hard to question the tactical savvy in abandoning the cause of the pregnant teenager to choose the quiet, married department store clerk as the poster child for one’s political cause. To challenge one set of social conventions, building on others is often a necessity.
Yet however tactically necessary, does not that choice also entail possible elements of current or future injustice? Aren’t even pregnant teenage girls entitled to a seat on the bus? One can of course argue that choosing a meritorious woman like Rosa Parks will allow progressives to win the struggles that may eventually benefit everyone.
The operative word here is “may”. Winning the struggle for rights to equal seating on buses on the grounds that segregated transit hurts quiet married store clerks also can entrench and further reinforce conceptions about unmarried pregnant teens and unemployed African American teenagers. Social Security, though purportedly a universal program, did not originally encompass domestic workers and seasonal agricultural labor. Their exclusion was needed to garner support from Southern Democrats. Their inclusion years later required active political struggle. Even today, unemployment compensation statutes discriminate against part time labor, disproportionately disadvantaging minorities.
Conceptions of the unemployed and pregnant teens as in need of pity at the best and continuous supervision or discipline at the worst historically worked themselves into and became entrenched in employment practices and welfare policies.
The civil rights activists of Parks’ era faced other unpleasant surprises. Extraordinary levels of violence were unleashed against activists. In addition, after their victory in the courts, Parks herself could no longer get a job. She and her husband were forced to move in search of employment.
Late in her life, Parks wondered aloud about the use of Martin Luther King in our mainstream media. She objected to portrayals of him as a dreamer rather than a social activist. For her the importance of King lay in taking on new injustice rather than in commemorating past accomplishments as proof of final rectitude. She recognized that even the most well motivated struggles for justice could still leave ugly remainders in their wake.
Today, even members of the African American middle class, like Bill Cosby, suggest that the poverty of urban ghettoes is a consequence of the negligence and lasciviousness of young male fathers. Yet, during President Bush first term, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice both acknowledged that affirmative action programs had contributed to their career success. These remarks constituted an admission that lingering stereotypes had made equal employment opportunities elusive half a century after Montgomery even for middle class African Americans. The Rosa Parks I honor would continue to ask unsettling questions and thus risk losing mainstream iconic status. Are schools, healthcare, housing, access to transit, and entry-level jobs equally available to the African American underclass Cosby condemns?
John Buell is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News and co-author of Liars, Cheaters, Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics (New York University Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.