Just the memory of Rosa Parks can still get the job done. In this case, 100 years after her birth, the late civil rights icon is bringing together the president and the Democratic and Republican leaders of both the House and the Senate. In the partisan atmosphere of Washington, D.C., that’s close to a miracle. The lineup of speakers was scheduled for Wednesday’s dedication of a statue in Parks’ honor in the National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol.
As an image is being revealed, it’s past time to correct the false one in America’s imagination: That Rosa Parks was a meek, humble seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus that day in 1955 – because she was tired – and spontaneously sparked a more-than-yearlong boycott and a movement. The Rosa Parks sold to the public was what was accepted for a woman, particularly a black woman, but it hid her full measure. That was the respectable symbol that was needed at the time, even though the flesh-and-blood activist was far more interesting.
Recent books and stories paint a fuller picture of a woman who can’t be defined by one day or one act. Published this year, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” by Jeanne Theoharis says it all in the title. Rosa Parks had spent more than a decade as secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., branch of the NAACP before that day on the bus. Organizing in the fight for equality was nothing new for her or for the women who formed the backbone of the success of the Montgomery Improvement Association’s (MIA) boycott, though the name you might remember is another leader important to the effort, the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 2010, I interviewed Danielle L. McGuire, author of “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power.” Published that year, the book brought to life the Rosa Parks who, long before refusing to give up her seat, traveled to Abbeville, Ala., to investigate the case of Recy Taylor, a black, 24-year-old mother and sharecropper who in 1944 was kidnapped and raped by seven armed white men as she walked home from church.
For a dozen years, Parks’s Committee for Equal Justice failed to get just that in the courts for the many black women who would not stay silent about unpunished crimes in a society that did not value them. But with passion and fire, Parks worked to investigate and publicize many such outrages and pushed them to headlines across the country.
Parks’s activism continued after Montgomery, after she and her husband lost jobs because of their civil rights work and moved to Detroit. She wrote and spoke and gave back, never content to remain trapped in one historic moment.
“We tend to like our heroes simple and meek,” McGuire told me. “If we had a larger sense of who she was, a radical activist and warrior for human rights,” she said, we wouldn’t shortchange her life’s work.
For a civil rights movement making waves in a country that did not recognize or respect black women, you could not be held up as both the lady and the fighter that Rosa Parks was in life.
Since then, there has been progress, though you need only to have glanced at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony to realize the country is not there yet when it comes to seeing women as complete human beings. A parade of juvenile, misogynistic humor during the show was followed by reaction that took particular aim at two black women – actually one woman and one little girl.
Though it wasn’t the first White House cameo, reviews of Michelle Obama’s appearance — as well as repeated shots at her actual appearance — garnered critical reviews. And the humor magazine The Onion chose (and later apologized to) a 9-year-old target for its offensive satire. Watching nominee Quvenzhane’ Wallis, I could only admire the parents who somehow raised the exuberant young beauty. Let’s hope they can continue to nurture that in the face of some ugly reality.
And let’s hope that as the country places Rosa Parks on a pedestal, it can pay her the tribute of letting her step down from it and be appreciated for the complex, beautiful, righteously angry woman she was.
We can reclaim the woman from the icon, and acknowledge that 100 years after her birth, her job is far from over.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3