Ive gotten wonderful responses to the enclosed op-ed. Feel free to pass it to
From the Los Angeles Times, Jan 14, 2000
THE REAL ROSA PARKS
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: www.soulofacitizen.org.