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Seeing Parks as a hero

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, November 2, 2005

“You may go on and do so.” With those words, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American seamstress, lit a fire that sought to consume the racist environment of Montgomery, Ala.

Last week we lost a national treasure. Rosa Parks is a popular and powerful symbol of courage and non-violent action. Her refusal to move to the back of the bus put a face on the shameful segregation polices of the American South. Now with her gone, the pundits have gone to work trying to derive some greater lesson from her life. True, Parks was an active member in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and served as her chapter’s secretary. True, Parks had attended a training prior to her arrest that fortified her for taking direct non-violent action. True, she was a part of a community organizing for civil rights, and perhaps without that preparedness, Parks’ actions would not have been the springboard for the protests and mobilizations to follow. Yet, holding her up as a hero is neither inappropriate nor misplaced.

Rosa Parks was a leader. Her action was courageous. In those times, blacks were treated as children and whites understood themselves as smarter, superior and more powerful. The word of a bus driver to a seamstress was as good as law. So on that bus and in the news reports, Rosa Parks refusing to move from her seat and submitting to arrest was a heroic and gutsy move.

Rosa Parks was a part of a growing movement, but certainly not an automaton. People hold that within collective action, people stop thinking and acting for themselves. On the contrary, people within community organizations should be given strength of support to act individually on their anger and stand for themselves. There is no “I” in “team,” but there is a pretty central one in “win.” We need leaders to show us the way, guide us by example and show us what is possible. Rosa Parks suffered the daily stab of discrimination and dehumanization from Jim Crow as much as anyone else in the movement. A black life was worth nothing to society. Rosa Parks had her own personal reasons apart from the movement not to move to the back of the bus, so we should not diminish her action as bold.

Dreamers of the next social movement say we should not hold Parks up as a hero, but look at the other black leaders who mobilized around her civil disobedience. The fact is that all those people are men, and even in the Civil Rights Movement, a man’s voice was worth more than those of women like Parks. It is a shame no one remembers anyone from the civil rights movement outside of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., but I do not think that putting them in the rank and file will do any better. We shall be worse off if we forget Parks now that her living witness has expired.

While we can have memorials and holidays to presidents, military leaders and unnamed soldiers, we should have at least one to American female courage and fortitude. We should take the time and space to remember the strength of African Americans during the civil rights movement – even if channeled through the life of one woman. We should uplift the life of Rosa Parks so our children and our children’s children can always remember – even if imperfectly – that she stood up for her dignity by stayed seated and changed the course of history. I feel it is in order to start – or join – a campaign to have a national holiday to Rosa Parks and even perhaps a memorial statue in Washington, D.C.

Maybe money and energy could be better spent fighting for a cause here or in Africa. A holiday probably will not change the world. However, there will always be time for fighting; injustices unfortunately do not go away easily. People of courage, like Rosa Parks, will leave us. If we do not seize this opportunity to honor her and lobby for a national and remaining remembrance of Rosa Parks, we let the failings of memory and disregard for the past wipe her from our minds. For us at Notre Dame, it could be another day we have to go to class while other students get to frolic. Yet I have a feeling that many could take that day, reflect on a courageous African American woman and maybe even, with the light of her legacy, take up our own radical, non-violent actions for a cause of freedom and justice.

Kamaria Porter is a senior American Labor History Major. She can be reached at kporter@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.