The Fix | Analysis
December 2, 2017 at 9:30 PM
President Trump tweeted a video Saturday of him honoring civil rights icon Rosa Parks, the late activist who made history by protesting racism in America by refusing to relinquish her bus seat to a white man.
In Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 — like many places in America — laws and policies required blacks riding public transportation to sit in the rear of the bus in a section reserved for people of color and even to give up those seats if a white passenger wanted them.
When a bus driver told Parks to give up her seat to a white man, she refused to do so, kicking off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which eventually led to the desegregation of public transportation in the city after the bus system lost significant revenue because of black Americans and their allies refusing to patronize a public transit system that treated them like second-class citizens.
“But when that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night. I felt all the meanness of every white driver I'd seen who'd been ugly to me and other black people through the years I'd known on the buses in Montgomery. I felt a light suddenly shine through the darkness.”
The president praised her “courageous” act of resistance and its broader impact Saturday on social media:
“Her courageous act inspired a young Christian pastor, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, along with thousands of others in Montgomery to join the movement and boycott the city bus service . . . Soon millions of others across the country joined the Civil Rights Movement and helped secure the freedom and the equality that is every American's birthright.
“Rosa Parks's legacy continues to inspire our citizens to pursue a better tomorrow and to build a country where every American child — no matter their skin color — can live without fear, dream without limits and take their rightful place in the great story of our nation.”
Trump's awareness of Parks's legacy goes back at least 30 years to when both he and Parks were among 80 people honored at the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations first awards ceremony on Ellis Island in 1986 by William Fugazy, Trump's real estate broker, according to HuffPost.
Trump was photographed beside the activist at the event, but years later, he appears to believe that activists protesting racism don't deserve honor.
While campaigning for a Republican candidate in the same state that birthed Parks's historic protest, Trump called NFL players protesting racism in America “sons of b---es.”
And during the campaign, Trump suggested that protesters at his rallies “should have been roughed up.” He criticized Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for allowing Black Lives Matter activists to share their concerns at a rally, and he also called some activists in Charlottesville protesting white supremacists “bad dudes.”
What the president doesn't seem to understand is that those activists, including today's NFL players, are following in the footsteps of Parks.
Yale University history Prof. Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore provided the historical context for the activism in the New York Times:
“Just as football players kneeling during the national anthem today must repeatedly insist that they are not protesting the flag, Parks and the Greensboro students had to fight against efforts to play down the stakes of their protests. Parks’s action was not about a seat in the front of the bus. It was about Jim Crow, a legal and social system of degradation. "
Trump's apparent inconsistency alarmed many activists Saturday.
Actor Jeffrey Wright called on the president to stop mentioning Parks.
Feminist writer Hanna Brooks Olsen argued that Trump would be attacking Parks if she were alive today.
And activist April Reign highlighted that the federal government previously sued Trump for discriminatory business practices against black Americans.
Despite NFL players explaining in multiple op-eds and interviews the motivations behind their kneeling while the national anthem plays during football games, Trump continues to characterize their actions in a way that is inconsistent with their expressed intent. For a leader who promised to unite America after a divisive campaign filled with racially inflammatory rhetoric, this response has been disappointing to many of the Americans who believe that he has played a major role in the country's ongoing divisions on racial matters.
In taking time to explain to the world why Parks protested racism in America, Trump has revealed that he is capable of understanding the concerns of marginalized communities when he chooses to do so. To his critics, the president's refusal to grant NFL players the recognition that he has given to Parks suggests that his actions aren't because he fails to comprehend the magnitude of their protests, but rather that he simply desires not to.