As we celebrate the 102nd anniversary of Rosa Parks’ birthday, it is useful to compare and contrast the civil rights movement in which she fought sixty years ago with the one developing in America today. While there is a world of difference between the challenges facing the Montgomery bus boycotters and those confronting the Twitter activists who turned #BlackLivesMatter into a national movement, there is far more that unites them on a fundamental level.
These are just some of the lessons that Parks’ act of defiance can teach us about civil rights today.
1) We place unreasonable expectations on victims.
Parks wasn’t the first black passenger to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus. As the New York Times recalled in their obituary for Parks in 2005, the Women’s Political Council (which eventually took up Parks’ cause) “had begun to build a case around a 15-year-old girl’s arrest for refusing to give up her seat, and Mrs. Parks had been among those raising money for the girl’s defense.” The Times‘ E.R. Shipp continued, “But when they learned that the girl was pregnant, they decided that she was an unsuitable symbol for their cause.”
Social justice activists have always had to worry that the individuals acting as the symbolic core of a cause celebre might be unfairly discredited through attacks on their reputation. Even though a pregnant teenager has just as much of a right to sit where she pleases on public transit as a married woman, the WPC knew that the former’s past would be used to distract the public from the injustice committed against her. As we’ve seen by the character assassinations committed in recent years against Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner—none of whom had any say in their status as symbols—supporters of the racial status quo are still quick to argue that anyone without a spotless past is unfit for sympathy when victimized by oppression.
2) Justified outrage can fuel powerful acts of symbolic protest.
When asked years later whether her actions were driven by anger, Rosa Parks told an interviewer that “I don’t remember feeling that anger, but I did feel determined to take this as an opportunity to let it be known that I did not want to be treated in that manner and that people have endured it far too long.”
This is notable because, while Parks was clearly unwilling to accept the indignities of segregation any longer, she drew on her emotions for inspiration when it came time for her to commit an act of symbolic defiance. When civil rights protesters today don hoodies like Trayvon Martin or pantomime “hands up, don’t shoot,” they are acting in the same spirit as Parks in 1955, even if their actual deeds aren’t as spontaneous. Her lesson to future generations of protesters was clear: So long as you channel your negative emotions into a constructive outlet, they can make the difference between acquiescing to injustice and clearly stating your opposition to it.
3) Parks can help us understand why some protesters behave violently.
In her handwritten account about life during segregation, Parks noted that “there is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take.” Parks continued, “The bubble of life grows larger. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.”
As I explained in an earlier article for the Daily Dot, racial minorities in America have valid cause to be angry, from the disproportionate presence of non-whites in our prisons and rampant racial profiling by police officers to the aforementioned tendency of blaming the victims for the crimes committed against them. While none of this justifies rioting, looting, or inflicting physical injury, it explains why the “line between reason and madness” is just as thin now as it was in Parks’ day. It is telling that even someone as famously non-violent as Parks could still understand and express sympathy for the many others who became fed up and turned to violence, despite not practicing such behavior herself.
4) Everyone has a role to play in making a difference.
“Social change comes from the leadership of the many,” activist Paul Schmitz explained in an article for the Huffington Post last year, “It does not diminish the courage of Mrs. Parks or the prophetic vision of Dr. King to acknowledge that their leadership was part of a larger leadership narrative.”
Schmitz was referring to the fact that, while Parks single act was undeniably heroic, it didn’t end segregation in Montgomery on its own. Thousands of protesters, national, and local leaders (political and religious), and ordinary citizens in the Jim Crow South were responsible for organizing and carrying out the bus boycott that ultimately ended segregation on public buses in the Alabama city. Without their support and subsequent activism, Parks would have been just one more frustrated African0American woman who would have paid the penalty for her refusal to compromise and been promptly forgotten. While it’s important to pay respect to our heroes, it’s just as necessary to recognize that the good caused by their heroism was multiplied by those who were inspired by and thus rallied behind it.
5) Parks can help us appreciate the universal importance of opposing racism.
When asked about her own legacy, Parks replied that she wanted to be remembered “as a person who wanted to be free and wanted other people also to be free.” She said, “I will always work for human rights for all people.”
This was more than a mere platitude. Once the precedent is established that it is acceptable to deny certain people their basic human rights—regardless of whether the grounds are racial, religious, political, economic, sexual, or anything else—no one is safe. The same logic that can one day be used to reinforce segregation on a city bus or rationalize police profiling of racial minorities can be used to justify publicly humiliating and harassing men and women of any color or ethnic heritage.
Consequently, when Parks insisted on staying in her seat, she was indeed fighting for the human rights of all people. It just so happened that, on December 1, 1955, the battle that needed to be waged was the same one so many are still fighting today.