Rosa Parks’ Stamp on American History

As we honor the centennial of her birth, let's understand the full measure of her legacy.

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One of the greatest distortions of the Parks fable is the way it portrays her as meek, missing the resolute political sensibility that identified Malcolm X as her personal hero. Arriving in Detroit in 1957, she spent more than half her life fighting racial injustice in the Jim Crow North. Describing the city as the “promised land that wasn’t,” the Parks family lived in the “heart of the ghetto” and found racism in Detroit “almost as widespread as Montgomery.” Having volunteered on his upstart political campaign, Parks was hired by the newly elected Rep. John Conyers in 1965 to be part of his Detroit staff, where she worked on issues such as police brutality, open housing, welfare and job discrimination — the plagues of Northern racism.

Her long-standing political commitments to self-defense, black history, economic justice, police accountability and black political empowerment intersected with key aspects of the Black Power movement, and she took part in numerous mobilizations in the late 1960s and 1970s. An internationalist, she opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam, demonstrated at the South African embassy to condemn apartheid and contested U.S. policy in Central America. Eight days after 9/11, she joined other activists in a letter calling for justice, not vengeance, insisting the U.S. must work with the international community and warning against retaliation or war.

To the end of her life, Parks continued to stress the enduring need for social change, reminding Americans “not [to] become comfortable with the gains we have made in the last forty years.” That lifetime of steadfastness and outrage, tenacity and bravery, is what deserves national veneration.          

Doing justice to Parks’ actual legacy thus requires something of us — something much harder than a stamp or a statue. Rosa Parks’ courage was the ability to make an independent stand, even though she and others had done it before and nothing had changed, and even when she well-understood the harm that might befall her. She made those stands over and over throughout the course of her life.  

Honoring her legacy means summoning similar audacity. It requires acknowledging that America is not a postracial society and that the blight of racial and social injustice is deep and manifest. It entails a profound recommitment to the goals for which she spent a lifetime fighting — a criminal justice system fair and just to people of color, unfettered voting rights, educational access and equity, real assistance to the poor, an end to U.S. wars of occupation and black history in all parts of school curricula. Finally, it means heeding her words to Spelman College students: “Don’t give up, and don’t say the movement is dead.”

Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the author of a new biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

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