Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks, 1913-2005

Why she rules. And why we don't.

The death of Rosa Parks is one of those events that completely dwarfs any other recent obituary. Hers is one of the few high-profile deaths for which I actually grieve. Granted, she was 92, a staggering fact considering that most revolutionaries don't live half that long; still, the death of Rosa Parks is one of those things you still think would never happen. The woman is as tough as the metal of the bus on which she made history. If there's a heaven, I hope she gets a front-row seat.

Rosa Parks is proof of just how much power a regular citizen can possess. Though she was the hardly the first civil-rights advocate (and her famous bus incident was not the first act of its kind), Parks was the catalyst for much of the movement in the 1950s and 1960s. She inspired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Imagine that: one of the most significant social revolutions in history, one decades in the making, ultimately sparked by a seamstress armed with little more than courage and political interest.

We can all learn something from that.

No one has to be told that today's society has lost its edge. We're such subconscious slaves to corporate culture that no one would think to engineer such a bold and massive political statement. If the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been necessary today, it would have never happened. Instead, Rosa Parks probably would have faced this exchange:

Driver: Excuse me, ma'am, but you can't sit there anymore.
Rosa: I have a right to sit anywhere. I'm a human being just like anyone else.
Driver: Nope. City regulations clearly state that negroes must move for whites.
Rosa: Well, I'm not moving.
White passenger: Wow, what a stirring statement! I see major positive change in the air. But do you have to do this right now? I have a board meeting in 20 minutes.
Driver: I'm not moving until you do, ma'am.
Rosa: [Turns to back of bus] Surely my brothers and sisters got my back.
Black guy: I'm down with racial equality. But come on, lady, why rock the boat?
Black woman: What are you trying to do, shut down the entire bus line? How else will we be able to spend our $300 tax-refund checks from a few years ago?
White passenger: Down with the Tax Man!
Driver: The corporate office won't stand for this! You're cutting into my bottom line by a significant fraction of a percent. And our other pickups will be angry that we reached their stop a few minutes late.
Black guy: Did you hear that? Hey, lady, the busses gotta run on time!
Rosa: Screw this. I'll walk.

Some might argue that political activism is alive and well in this country, and no one can dispute that. Its current effectiveness, however, is debatable. An oft-cited example of today's activism is Cindy Sheehan, whose actions rightfully embarrassed George W. Bush. However, I'd hold her up as an example of precisely why activism is in such a crisis in America; in the 1960s, she'd have been but one of a huge group. And that would be a good thing. But Sheehan is such an anomaly in today's culture that her very presence invited as much ridicule as reflection.

At least Sheehan is out there. We owe it to Rosa Parks and everyone else who has devoted their lives to social change to carry on the cause. Where are our generation's heroes? We need them now more than ever. And as Rosa Parks showed us, sometimes all it takes to make a stand is to sit.


The Goblin Slayer said...

Where are our generation's heroes?

They are in the military killing terrorists so that you can continue to question where the heroes are.

Good job trying to equate Cindy Sheehan to Rosa Parks. I'm sure you strummed the heart chords of all your minority readers. How big of a shoe can you fit into that mouth of yours?

Flamingo Jones said...

Are you serious?

If Rosa Parks had followed orders, bought in to the status quo and blindly trusted her government's decisions, a lot of people would still have been trudging to the back of the bus for a helluva lot longer.

That's not saying anything against soldiers, although I'm sure you'll take it that way, g s. Soldiers have a job to do, but it is not their duty to create social change in their own country. You cannot compare that with the civil rights heroes.

That being said, I also don't put Sheehan in that category either. And I can't quite put my finger on the difference. But it's palpable to me. I think it's something to do with the fact that Sheehan isn't really an "activist" to me. I think she makes an important point, and she's an important voice...but it's not the same. Activists of the past had a more direct role to play. They stood up and said they weren't going to do what they were told anymore, because it was wrong. They were going to sit at Whites Only lunch counters, even if it meant being spit on, beaten, and arrested. They were going to sit any where they wanted on the bus. Etc. Etc. Vietnam protesters refused to comply with their draft orders, and took the consequences.

In order for real change, a lot of people are going to have to be a lot braver than they've been for a long time. It's more than making a show for the cameras. It's going to have to be the people who have much to lose, but who are willing to put it on the line to take things into their own hands.

Sheehan might be a start, but that sort of display isn't going to be enough.

Ian McGibboney said...

Goblin, soldiers are a lot of things, like brave, courageous, tenacious, etc. But they are not heroes, at least not strictly by association.

Flamingo is right. Civil rights heroes are their own pantheon, and very few others come close. My point was precisely that Cindy Sheehan is not on the level of a Rosa Parks. I am simply comparing this era to the recent past, and not favorably. Rosa Parks was a 180 in history. Looks like we need another now, to stem the bloody tide of the neocon paradise. It blows my mind that we can't get people worked up about it. Even Republicans I know are appalled, yet they choose to remain appalled instead of admitting that things could be better. The real problem is not reversing the neocon damage, but to awaken people from their stupor.

Nick said...

Yes, Rosa Parks is certainly someone we should honor and be thankful for the influence she had on our government and society.

The Goblin Slayer said...

soldiers are a lot of things, like brave, courageous, tenacious, etc. But they are not heroes, at least not strictly by association.

Thanks for clearing that up for me, Ian. I'll keep that in mind next time you post a mamby-pamby tribute to a local fallen soldier.

FJ - I didn't take it that way at all. I appreciate your thoughts, but you have to admit that without soldiers to protect the ideals and social freedoms of this country, it wouldn't matter a damn bit if Rosa Parks stood up for herself.

Ian McGibboney said...

Goblin, nobody here hates the soldiers. I'm just a little selective on whom I call a hero, that's all. And I like to think I'm not loose with the word like so many on the right. I know lots of soldiers personally, some of whom are heroes for doing heroic deeds. It is the individual actions that make them heroes. Is someone a hero just for being in the military? No, not anymore than the janitor at NASA is an astronaut. Otherwise, I'd have to consider Tim McVeigh and John Muhammed heroes, which they most certainly aren't.

Anyway, my whole point is that this generation needs someone to call on the injustices of America and do it in a way that galvanizes people without inciting harm or violence. Someone like Rosa Parks, basically. Following orders thousands of miles away is not what I mean. I think you've lost sight of that, Goblin. A nation is more than the sum of its armed forces.

Jez said...

We all can be heroes.
Rosa Parks was a heroine because she spent most of her life fighting inequality. Not simply for refusing to move to the back of the bus. That-and the media coverage which followed-merely made her a symbol. I'm sure plenty of people throughout history and the world have stood up to injustice the way she did. They just didn't get the same media attention.