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I’ve gotten wonderful responses to the enclosed op-ed. Feel free to pass it to friends

From the Los Angeles Times, Jan 14, 2000


We learn much from how we present our heroes. A few years ago, on Martin Luther King Day, I was interviewed on CNN. So was Rosa Parks, by phone from Los Angeles. ''We're very honored to have her,'' said the host. ''Rosa Parks was the woman who wouldn't go to the back of the bus. She wouldn't get up and give her seat in the white section to a white person. That set in motion the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned Rosa Parks the title of 'mother of the civil rights movement.' ''

I was excited to be part of the same show. Then it occurred to me that the host's familiar rendition of her story had stripped the Montgomery, Ala., boycott of its most important context. Before refusing to give up her bus seat, Parks had spent 12 years helping lead the local NAACP chapter. The summer before, Parks had attended a 10-day training session at Tennessee's labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd met an older generation of civil rights activists and discussed the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision banning ''separate but equal'' schools.

In other words, Parks didn't come out of nowhere. She didn't single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts. Instead, she was part of an existing movement for change at a time when success was far from certain.

This in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of her refusal to give up her seat. But it does remind us that this tremendously consequential act might never have taken place without the humble and frustrating work that she and others did earlier on. It reminds us that her initial step of getting involved was just as courageous and critical as the fabled moment when she refused to move to the back of the bus.

People like Parks shape our models of social commitment. Yet the conventional retelling of her story creates a standard so impossible to meet that it may actually make it harder for the rest of us to get involved. This portrayal suggests that social activists come out of nowhere to suddenly materialize to take dramatic stands. It implies that we act with the greatest impact when we act alone. or when we act alone initially. It reinforces a notion that anyone who takes a committed public stand--or at least an effective one--has to be a larger-than-life figure, someone with more time, energy, courage, vision or knowledge than any normal person could ever possess.

This belief pervades our society, in part because the media rarely represents historical change as the work of ordinary human beings who learn to take extraordinary actions. And once we enshrine our heroes on pedestals, it becomes hard for mere mortals to measure up in our eyes. We go even further, dismissing most people's motives, knowledge and tactics as insufficiently grand or heroic, faulting them for not being in command of every fact and figure or not being able to answer every question put to them. We fault ourselves as well for not knowing every detail or for harboring uncertainties and doubts. We find it hard to imagine that ordinary human beings with ordinary hesitations and flaws might make a critical difference in worthy social causes.

Yet those who act have their own imperfections and ample reasons to hold back. ''I think it does us all a disservice,'' said a young African American activist from Atlanta, ''when people who work for social change are presented as saints--so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light.''

She added that she was much more inspired to learn how people ''succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties.'' That would mean she, too, had a ''shot at changing things.''

Our culture's misreading of the Rosa Parks story speaks to a more general collective amnesia by which we forget the examples that might most inspire our courage and conscience. Most of us know next to nothing of the grass-roots movements in which ordinary men and women fought to preserve freedom, expand the sphere of democracy and create a more just society: the abolitionists, the populists, the women's suffragists and the union activists who spurred the end of 80-hour work weeks at near-starvation wages. These activists teach us how to shift public sentiment, challenge entrenched institutional power and find the strength to persevere despite all odds. But their stories, like the real story of Parks, are erased in an Orwellian memory hole.

Parks' actual story conveys an empowering moral that is lost in her public myth. She began modestly by attending one meeting and then another. Hesitant at first, she gained confidence as she spoke out. She kept on despite a profoundly uncertain context as she and others acted as best they could to challenge deeply entrenched injustices, with little certainty of results. Had she and others given up after their 10th or 11th year of commitment, we might never have heard of Montgomery.

Parks' journey suggests that social change is the product of deliberate, incremental action, whereby we join together to try to shape a better world. Sometimes our struggles will fail, as did many earlier efforts of Parks, her peers and her predecessors. Other times they may bear modest fruit. And at times they will trigger a miraculous outpouring of courage and heart, as happened in the wake of Parks' arrest. For only when we act despite all our uncertainties and doubts do we have the chance to shape history.


Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of ''Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time'' (St Martin's, 1999). Web site: