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Fifty-Five Years Later, What is Rosa Parks’ Legacy?

By November 30, 2010 No Comments

By Joyce
New Organizing Project blogger
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Parks getting fingerprinted after her arrest.

December 1st, 2010, will mark the 55th anniversary of the day when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger, helping further ignite a civil rights movement that was already gaining steam. I remember learning about her in middle school and the way she was presented made it seem like what she did was such an isolated incident, the first of its kind. That Rosa Parks was simply just a tired ol’ lady who wasn’t in the mood to get up and move to the back of the bus. Nothing was mentioned about her activist background, the fact that various incidents similar to hers had happened before but none had gained as much attention. Nothing.

 

What I’ve come to learn through my own on-going reeducation of U.S. history is that the whole Rosa Parks incident was planned and part of a much larger civil rights strategy. But what I’ve found the most intriguing is how her story was and has been ‘marketed’ to the public. Case in point, as mentioned above, Rosa Parks was presented to me as an average woman, no mention of activism or her working at the NAACP, who was tired and refused to move. When the Washington Post wrote her obituary, they very much referred to her as a seamstress and very little as the activist that she was, continuing the myth that Parks was a woman who all of a sudden had had enough. Why is it that this myth continues today and is one of the most well-known aspects of her story?

The more jaded part of me feels like part of it comes down to gender politics and preserving a sugar-coated image of the Civil Rights movement. For the sake of maintaining stereotypical gender roles, mainstream society doesn’t seem to want to know the ‘real’ Rosa Parks; one who was actually a black nationalist, supporter and admirer of Malcom X and someone who kept guns in her home to protect her family. Strong female leaders are few and far between and when they do appear in mainstream society, they generally seem to be labeled as ‘polarizing figures’ (think Hillary Rodham Clinton). It’s like society is so concerned with appearing like they’re ‘post-feminist’ or what have you, but when a woman tries to attain some semblance of power, it’s seen as threatening. If that is the case, I suppose I could understand why Parks’ story was marketed in such a way. But her story has become so well known and is taught in just about every school textbook in the U.S., shouldn’t her real story be finally told?

This is something I’ve been struggling with the last few days and trying to wrap my head around: what is Rosa Parks’ legacy? In U.S. education, she is revered as the ‘mother’ of the civil rights movement and reached iconic status in the fight for racial equity. And yet, a lot of people probably don’t know the real story behind who this woman was. Many teachers will teach her story to millions of youth but it’ll be a whitewashed version, a version that glosses over her grassroots organizing background or fails to mention her disagreement with a nonviolent approach to activism. Rappers and movie stars will throw around her name in pop culture. So, fifty-five years later, what exactly is Rosa Parks’ legacy?