It’s time to reflect, and act, rather than merely “honor” the legacy of Rosa Parks. It is time to move beyond a frozen image of her on that fateful bus on December 1955.
No doubt many will remember that it was on December 1st, 1955, that Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white man.
The Montgomery Improvement Association that spearheaded that boycott became an integral inspiration for the civil rights movement.
In looking back on that moment, Parks said:
There had to be a stopping place and this seemed to be the place for me to stop being pushed around. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.
Parks was not the first person to have done so, nor was December 1, 1955 the first time that Rosa Parks had stood her ground by refusing to give p her right to be seated.
Others, such as Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1955, and Claudette Colvin had already done so.
But what’s so often forgotten is that history is not just made through the actions of courageous women and men, it is often made when courageous people act in accordance with what many have come to know to be true in their hearts. Their courage can appear quite ordinary at the time, as Rosa Parks' action did, and its significance is revealed in the fullness of time.
History is not just made by great women and men.
History is made when individuals and communities act based on ideas whose time had come.
Recently there have been some well-needed calls to resist the tendency to collapse all of Rosa Parks’ activism to that one moment in the Bus.
A powerful essay by the historian Danielle McGuire documents how Parks resisted a violent rape from a white man “Mr. Charlie” in her youth, and demonstrated a life long activism on issues ranging activism in the NAACP in the 1940’s to investigation of a black woman’s rape in Alabama in 1944 to fighting for Black Power in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Here is Parks on how she resisted her rapist:
“I knew that no matter what happened, I would never yield to this white man’s bestiality.” "I was ready to die,” she said, “but give my consent, never. Never, never."
Parks was absolutely defiant: “If he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body,” she said, “he was welcome, but he would have to kill me first.”
Looking at the broader picture of Parks’ resistance helps us see that one courageous act on the bus not as one atomistic iconic moment,
but part of a life-long resistance to personal, communal, and institutional injustice, violence, sexism, and racism.
Many have come to honor Rosa Parks, including President Obama who paid homage to Rosa Parks in this memorable moment.
But the moral challenge remains: beyond honoring the iconic moment, what are we doing today to confront similar challenges today?
No one would deny the advances that we have made in many important areas, but let us return to the issue of segregated public accommodations and spaces,
as well as violence against women—causes that defined Parks’ lifetime activism.
Where do we stand when we see that one out of every three women in this country are raped, stalked, or beaten by an intimate partner?
Where do we stand when we have 12 million American women (and men) are victims and survivors of sexual violence every year?
What do we do with the fact that some sixty years after Rosa Parks, we still have segregated public accommodations in this country and beyond?
Where do we stand when we know that today’s “neighborhood schools” and the de-funding of public schools in favor of charter schools and private schools are extensions of “separate but equal” mythology?
Where do we stand when we see the re-segregation of public schools and housing in this country?
It’s not only in the South that this is taking place, but all over the country, including in large urban centers like New York.
Where do we stand when we see the ongoing appalling restriction on women in Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim countries?
Where do we stand when we see the Jews-only illegal settlements and roads in Israel, that have a catastrophic impact on Palestinians?
Not surprisingly, many Palestinians and supporters of peace and justice in Palestine see their struggle against Israeli segregation as being reminiscent of Rosa Parks, and the civil rights struggle.
Where do we stand?
Do we only pause to honor the icon Rosa Parks, or do we reflect and act courageously in our own time?