Here’s how you may have heard it.
Sixty years ago on this Dec. 1 day, a Thursday, Rosa Parks, a tailor’s assistant at the Montgomery department store, left work in the late, cold evening, to catch the bus home. Sore and tired, Parks boarded and took an aisle seat, in the row immediately behind the whites only section. The bus drove on, with driver J. F. Blake at its helm. At each stop, more passengers boarded, until finally every seat was taken, leaving one white male standing. It was the era of Old Jim Crow, and it was understood by the state that blacks were a class of lives that didn’t matter.
De jure segregation was the law of the Southland. Literally. Segregation customs in 1955 Montgomery stipulated that Blacks must relinquish their seats to whites when a situation required. This was a situation. When Parks, however, was asked to give up her seat, she did the opposite of what was required. She kept seated.
By this point, she’d proudly stepped into criminal terrain. She was arrested and jailed. Her calm labor pains, so the story goes, birthed a boycott, a movement, and a young Martin Luther King, Jr. to the world.
With that, our national memory crowned her “the mother of the modern civil rights movement.” The rest, as they say, is history. Rosa Parks the symbol became an institution. And, sooner or later, institutions and symbols get holidays.
Today is Rosa Parks Day. (Well, technically speaking, two days are set aside to observe Mrs. Parks. One on Dec. 1, the other on Feb 4, her birthday) Bells will chime in key battle ground locales like Montgomery, and other week long celebrations of this “seminal moment” of the so-called start of the black freedom movement will get underway.
As a member of the Black Lives Matter generation, I want to honor the occasion by inviting y’all to reconsider the scope of history, to veer from the connotations typically associated with the above account.
Federal and state holidays honoring singular figures such as Parks (and King) have the effect of offering a much neater, tidier, simpler, version of past events. Movements are taught as the work of extraordinary, never-to-be-seen-again individuals, not communities, born of persons who reside outside social structures.
Nothing could be more wrong.
Rosa Parks was the result of ancestors, and her ancestors the work of still more ancestors. She was the product of the communal frustration that had been churning in black southerners since the end of Reconstruction; of scarred slaves and apprehensive freepersons who had spent their lifetime fighting and dying for the great cause of human equity for black lives and, by extension, all lives. Many of their names are lost to time.
Our enslaved ancestors did not fight alone, were not “respected” by the oppressor, and did not win every slave rebellion. But, that certainly didn’t deter them from rebelling. Neither should we be deterred from coming together to do the same, even in the face of losts.
You may also get the impression from the opening passages that Parks was just some random woman who one day decided not to comply with an unjust law.
This, too, couldn’t be more wrong.
Prior to that December day, Parks was a seasoned activist and committed to civil rights work. The person King called a “fine, Christian woman” was a card carrying member of the local NAACP, and its secretary. She attended planning meetings for the civil rights organization and helped organize voter registration drives.
Her life WAS activism, and that December day in 1955, was but one moment of it, as it is for the activists whose names we’ll never know.
And so, on this Rosa Parks Day, in this era of Baltimore and Ferguson, of Cleveland and Staten Island; of hashtag commemorations, daily street demonstrations and marches, die-ins and campus hunger strikes; of bullet ridden black bodies and viral videos that ensure the world can’t ignore them.
In this era of mass, unquieted, grassroots uprisings, student protests, and Donald Trump; on the eve of what seems to be the setting of Hope, we remember each and every unsung hero of past and present, each and every black life, who will never have a day set aside, or a museum or exhibit extolling their contributions to realizing progressive policies, and generating new moral content for human living; who work(ed) daily to breath life into “the struggle” so often described in mere abstractions; who brought flesh and bone to movement trials.
On the subject of heroes, we remember Claudette Colvin, the fifteen year old high school student who, nine months before Parks, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. And we remember the burden of respectability that for so long denied her a place in the historical record:
“[Jo Ann] Robinson and [E. D.] Nixon learned in independent interviews with Colvin and her family that the young unmarried woman was several months pregnant. Both leaders concluded that Colvin would be neither an ideal candidate for symbolizing the abuse heaped upon black passengers nor a good litigant for a test suit certain to generate great pressures and publicity.”
Is this excerpt from historian David Garrow’s classic tome, Bearing the Cross not frustratingly contemporary?
Black Lives Matter is full of Colvins, losts, and campaign imperfections. But, that’s o.k. No social movement is ever perfect, and none will be.
Celebrate the legacy of Rosa Parks by shining light on this factoid. Honor her “criminality.” Hold dear the fallen and look beyond the neat story. Recognize every facet of Black America, and commit your life to fulfilling the unfinished work of the ancestors, setting the standard for black lives to come, just as the community palming Parks, on a cold day in Dec., set the standard for us.
Image Credit: Olaf, via Flickr Creative Commons