By Paul Rogat Loeb
We can learn a lot from the tales we tell about our heroes. I once had the privilege of appearing on a CNN show with Rosa Parks. "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 hear Parks's voice even though I didn't actually meet her, since we were being interviewed from different studios. Then it struck me that the host's description — the story's standard rendition — stripped the Montgomery boycott of its most important context. Before the day Parks refused to give up her bus seat, she had spent twelve years involved with her local NAACP chapter, along with E. D. Nixon, an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union who was the head of the chapter and first got an initially reluctant Martin Luther King involved; local teachers; and other members of Montgomery's African American community. The summer before, Parks had attended a ten-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, like Septima Clark, and discussed the Supreme Court's recent decision banning "separate but equal" schools. In the process, Parks also became familiar with previous challenges to segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier, had successfully eased some restrictions; and a bus boycott in Baton Rouge had won limited gains two years before. The previous spring, a young Montgomery woman who worked with the NAACP's youth section had also refused to move to the back of the bus, causing the organization to consider making her the centerpiece of a legal challenge — until it turned out that she was pregnant and unmarried, and therefore a problematic symbol for a campaign.
In short, Parks' decision didn't come out of nowhere. Nor did she singlehandedly give birth to the civil rights movement. Rather, she was part of a longstanding effort to create change, when success was far from certain and setbacks were routine. That in no way diminishes the personal courage, moral force, and historical importance of her refusal to surrender her seat. But the full story of Rosa Parks reminds us that her tremendously consequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on all the humble, frustrating work that she and others had undertaken earlier on, and on the vibrant, engaged community they had developed in the face of continual hardship and opposition. Her actions that day also weren't accidental, the product of her feet being tired, as we've so often heard, but rather a deliberate effort to challenge injustice. What's more, the full story underscores the value of persistence; had she given up in year three or seven or ten, we'd never have heard of her. Finally, it reminds us that Parks's first step toward involvement — attending a local NAACP meeting — was as critical to altering history as her famed stand on the bus.
Heroes like Parks shape our images of social commitment — of how change actually takes place. Yet when I speak throughout the country, most of those who hear my talks don't know the full story of her involvement. In this instance, the conventional portrayal may actually make it harder for us to get involved. It suggests that engaged citizens emerge fully developed and socially adept, to take bold and visionary stands. It implies that we act with the greatest effect when we act alone, at least initially. It assumes that change is instantaneous, as opposed to a series of incremental and often-invisible actions that gradually — and taken together — gather momentum and influence events. Depicting Parks as a lone pioneer reinforces the romantic but ultimately false idea that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least a fruitful 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.
Our culture's misreading of the Rosa Parks story speaks to a more general collective amnesia, where we forget the examples that might most inspire our courage, hope, and conscience. Of the abolitionist and civil rights movements, we at best recall a few key leaders — and often misread their actual stories. We know even less about the turn-of-the-century populists who challenged entrenched economic interests and fought for a "cooperative commonwealth." How many of us recall how the union movements ended 80-hour work weeks at near-starvation wages, or helped pass pivotal legislation like Social Security? How did the women's suffrage movement spread to hundreds of communities, and gather enough strength to prevail?
As memories of these events disappear, we lose the knowledge of mechanisms that grassroots social movements have used successfully in the past to shift public sentiment and challenge entrenched institutional power. Equally lost are the means by which their participants managed to keep on and eventually prevail in circumstances at least as harsh as those we face today.
In the prevailing myth, Parks decides to act almost on a whim, in isolation. She's a virgin to politics, a holy innocent. The lesson seems to be that if any of us suddenly got the urge to do something equally heroic, that would be great. Of course most of us don't, so we wait our entire lives to find the ideal moment.
By elevating Parks on a pedestal, the myth then obscures the story's most powerful lessons of hope — that when we begin to act on our beliefs, we set out on a journey whose rewards we can't anticipate, that seemingly modest initial steps can lead to powerful results, and that any of us can contribute to bringing about change, in small or large ways. She attends a meeting, then another, helping build the community that in turn supported her path. Hesitant at first, she slowly gains confidence as she speaks out. She continues despite an unpredictable and hostile context, as she and others act as best they can to challenge deeply entrenched injustices, with frequent setbacks and little certainty of success. Her story suggests that change is the product of deliberate, incremental, and persistent action, whereby we join together to try to shape a better world. Sometimes our struggles will fail, as did many earlier efforts by Parks, her peers, and their predecessors. Other times they may bear modest fruit. And at times they will trigger a miraculous outpouring of collective courage and heart — as happened with Parks's arrest and all that followed. We can never know beforehand the consequences of our actions.
From "Soul of a Citizen" by Paul Rogat Loeb. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin.
12 March 2010 — Return to cover.