Louise McCauley Parks in 1998
animated passion, the contralto sang: "My Feet's Weary but My Soul's at
Rest." In the hushed silence following, parents' heads quickly bent to
quietly clue in their children to the Rosa Parks story. What the children did
not hear in the parents' brief staccato explanation (and, most likely, the
parents themselves did not know) was Rosa Parks' preparedness to refuse to move
to the back of the segregated bus in the segregated city of Montgomery,
Alabama, on the first of December 1955.
Blacks had a designated seating area in the back of buses; however, if the front section for Whites filled up, then Blacks had to give up their seats and move further back. Ordered to move back, Rosa Parks refused. She was arrested. A twenty-six-year-old minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., led the bus boycott that followed.
The right person, the right leader and the right time (just the year before, in 1954, the Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education decision banning "separate but equal" schools) came together to eventually end legal segregation.
Rosa Parks was no political novice. For twelve years, she was a leader in the local NAACP chapter. The previous summer she attended a ten-day civil rights organizing school. There she met an older generation of civil rights activists and, with them, discussed strategies for future work.
A Montgomery bus boycott had taken place half a century earlier with a few gains. Also, more recently, a young African American woman had refused to move to the back of the bus and was arrested, causing the local NAACP to consider a legal challenge. It was decided that the woman, unmarried and pregnant, would not be a good symbol for the campaign. Rosa Parks was ready, and one day the seamstress' tired feet gave her cause.
For me, Rosa Parks readily comes to my mind at this time of the year when the virgin birth of Jesus is proclaimed in word and song. Virgin births--not factually, of course, but functionally--are exceedingly important in American culture. There is some need, it seems to me, for our heroes to be common folk who rise from nowhere to address the crises that affect us. Rosa Parks resides in our corporate memory as one such person.
Our cultural stories often are based on the virgin-birth myth. A pristine example is the Western classic, Shane. Riding out of an unknown past into a valley that is torn apart by the conflict of rancher and farmers, Shane rids the community of the evil people and, then, rides out of the valley into the unknown future. This underlying myth is seen in The Lone Ranger, Dirty Harry and Star Wars, among others.
We learned our American history this way. Individuals suddenly appear, do something significant and then disappear as one chapter in our history books ends and the next chapter begins. What is absent are the struggles and conflicts that give rise to, and flow from, each important individual studied.
Even our response to 9/11 follows this pattern. Initially, some raised the question: 'why do they hate us?' But that question quickly disappeared as we Americans viewed ourselves arising from our slumber of innocence and taking on the hard, but necessary task of blasting away at the evildoers, even with uncomprehending and fear-filled neighbors looking on. Shades of Shane and Dirty Harry.
Virgin birth makes a compelling, even 'magical' story, however, that view skews history and is a dangerous self-deception. As much as we Americans like our heroes (and ourselves) untainted in motive and unambiguous in action, cause and consequence are always present.
--Robert H. Tucker
23 December 2002
© Robert H. Tucker, 2002.
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