[Marxism] Saving Rosa Parks from American Hypocrisy, By ROBERT OSCAR LOPEZ

Paul Gallagher pgallagher4 at nyc.rr.com
Thu Nov 3 00:03:53 MST 2005


http://www.counterpunch.org/lopez11022005.html

November 2, 2005
Watching CNN Redefine a Heroine of the Resistance
Saving Rosa Parks from American Hypocrisy

By ROBERT OSCAR LOPEZ

Who can argue with the honors paid to Rosa Parks, the woman described 
repeatedly as "the mother of the Civil Rights movement"? As the first 
woman ever to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda where, not too long 
ago, Ronald Reagan's corpse lay, she is the heroine nobody can find 
fault with. Fifty years ago, she refused to give up her bus seat to a 
white man. In this simple act, the story goes, the American civil rights 
movement was born.

I wish the story could end on that high note. Instead, a hagiography 
filled with hypocrisy is slowly turning Rosa Parks into a conservative 
weapon against the present generation of antiracist activists, who are 
already being contrasted against Park's "unassuming" and "modest" way of 
changing things, to quote Kyra Phillips on CNN. After celebrating Parks' 
diminutive size and "quiet" courage, Phillips asked Reverend Joseph 
Lowery, an African American civil rights advocate, how Parks' memory 
made him feel about all the current-day commentators who are "always on 
the TV set complaining and shouting." Phillips was convinced that Parks 
was "very different;" in fact, a few minutes earlier both Phillips and 
Lowery had agreed that Parks was an angel chosen by God. [1] Even Parks' 
defiance was assumed only by divine right, a right not likely to be 
conferred on any people of color who wish to continue fighting for 
equality today.

Skepticism at times like this borders on bad taste, but a small dose of 
skepticism is necessary to save Rosa Parks from some bad-faith hero 
worship poised to handicap the very struggle she contributed to. As Rev. 
Lowery retorted to Phillips, now is not the time to let people "praise 
Rosa Parks through one side of their mouths" and then from the other 
side, back Bush's reactionary pick for the Supreme Court. [2] A 
realigned Court could easily roll back affirmative action, and Alito's 
draconian record on prison rights would hurt the African American inmate 
population (which, among males at least, is still larger than the number 
of blacks in college).

The same trend occurred last year, upon the fiftieth anniversary of 
Brown v. Board of Education. On one rhetorical level, spokespeople from 
all sides of the political spectrum sang odes to the progress made since 
the 1950s. Heartfelt recollections surfaced from countless famous black 
people, including both superstars and scholars, who spent their 
childhoods in the segregated South. On a hidden level, however, the 
discussion made it harder for younger minorities, who have no 
authenticating memories of pre-1960s segregation, to speak frankly about 
racial inequality today. And on the lowest level of the rhetoric, the 
vulgar discussion on talk shows and call-in programs stated what the 
saccharine speeches on the top level were implying but not saying 
directly: The struggle was over, because racism was a thing of the past. 
Unhappiness in the 21st century is a function of ingratitude and the 
cultural flaws of people of color themselves, over which white people 
have no power.

Between the Brown anniversary and Parks' death, Hurricane Katrina 
intervened, changing things. American racial tensions became as globally 
evident as they were in the Rodney King riots thirteen years earlier. I 
was hoping for a frank discussion of America's present racial problems; 
if any good could come out of the disastrous death toll in the Gulf 
states, at least we could take the opportunity to update our 
consciousness and abandon the trite clichés about racism existing fifty 
years ago "but not today." To our country's credit, some discussion did 
surface in the media. Prominent scholars were invited onto CNN, MSNBC, 
and others, to discuss the racial implications of Katrina. But we can 
always count on the smug white sanctimony of men like Lou Dobbs of CNN, 
who quickly poked at race scholars to ask, "haven't these black 
spokespeople had anything to say about the fact that New Orleans' mayor 
was black?" Race sputtered as a topic for a little while and seemed, 
somehow, to be forgotten. And maybe people of color needed to forget it 
for a while, because the press was sending mixed messages and the 
discussion seemed to expose all of us to too much risk. At one moment, 
the viewer was asked to sympathize with black mothers whose infants were 
dehydrated at the Superdome; at the next moment, reporters shared the 
lurid stories about rape and people firing at the rescue workers who 
were trying to save them (there was no need to tag these monsters as 
black, since the streaming images created a bizarre epistemology that 
assured us that they were black before anyone needed to ask.) Rape and 
irrational violence are not exactly new stereotypes to affix to men of 
color, and the underlying threat in the press was simple: talk too much 
about racial inequality and we will Willie Hortonize the whole damn city.

"Le Rage des Oubliés," ran the headline of France's Liberation in the 
shameful days after Katrina struck. "The Rage of the Forgotten." The 
picture below the headline featured a lone black woman in tattered 
clothes, screaming at the top of her lungs on one of the battered 
streets of New Orleans, presumably one of the many African Americans 
left stranded without food or water. [3] The tragic truth in the French 
critique of American racism was its prophetic rather than descriptive 
quality: the angry ones were going to be forgotten, because they were 
angry. The American press knows two courses of action when dealing with 
angry minorities: crush them or erase them.

With extreme sadness, I see Rosa Parks slowly being marshaled in the 
latter course. "Unassuming," "humble," this "small-framed" "seamstress" 
"chosen by God" is the perfect antidote to the "Rage des Oubliés." 
Instead of discussing Rosa Parks' readiness for confrontation or how 
enraged she must have felt about the Montgomery law, the adjectives 
emphasize her sacrificial meekness. Kyra Phillips may have simply 
blurted the question that much of white America is thinking but refuses 
to ask: "now what do you think of all those commentators who keep 
complaining all the time on the television, when Rosa Parks' approach 
was so different?"

In death, she is brought into the Capitol Rotunda. The honor is not 
hers, I would argue, but the Rotunda's. In a sickening irony, she lies 
in the same spot that served to honor J. Edgar Hoover's corpse shortly 
after his death on May 4, 1972. [4] Hoover, the longest-lasting head of 
the Federal Bureau of Investigation, worked indefatigably to destroy 
everything that Rosa Parks stood for. To place her coffin inside the 
Rotunda is a not-too-subtle act of ownership by the conservative 
Washington camp that follows in Hoover's footsteps, not Rosa Parks'. Her 
story will now belong to someone else, and this time, she cannot refuse 
to be placed where they want to place her. The story will now go 
something like this: racism once existed, but it does not anymore. It 
ended because God chose one small seamstress, and she defied the law, 
but she defied it meekly, quietly, unassumingly, without pride or 
aggression. If you are patient and quiet, you will be remembered. If you 
are angry or militant, you will be forgotten, just as the French 
headline says.

To his great credit, Reverend Joseph Lowery politely resisted Kyra 
Phillips' innuendoes on CNN. "It takes all approaches," Lowery said. "I 
do not condone violence, but I do condone militancy." Phillips, blonde 
and smiling, may or may not have understood that Lowery was telling her 
she was wrong. She did not say anything in response. But the endless 
photographs of Rosa Parks to follow simply reinforced everything 
Phillips had said: black-and-white pictures of a bygone era, the small 
"quiet angel" as Lowery called her, serenely defying her oppressors in a 
feminine, almost Christ-like sacrifice consciously differentiated from 
the black woman screaming at the top of her lungs in the wreckage of New 
Orleans.

Turning heroes against their causes is a very old routine in American 
racial history. When I teach African American literature to college 
students, I always observe how well students have learned the "I love 
Martin Luther King but I hate Malcolm X" game. They vaunt Frederick 
Douglass' method of opposing slavery through self-education and they 
condemn Nat Turner's violence (in a mock trial I held in Camden, New 
Jersey, for instance, the students called Douglass' ghost to the stand 
and used his testimony to convict Turner.) Someone somewhere usually 
manages to rewrite racial history in the United States to instill:

     (1) indifference to the racial problems of the present,

     (2) a false remembrance of past heroism in the face of an injustice 
that is supposedly gone, and

     (3) an even falser nostalgia for the classier, more polite, more 
Christian, nicer, and more acceptable forms of antiracist resistance 
that used to exist.

All this rewriting can be translated to the crass thought, "they don't 
make colored people the way they used to."

African Americans are not immune to this willful amnesia. Footage of 
Condoleezza Rice waving to the crowds at an event to honor Rosa Parks' 
memory should remind us of that. When he died in 1895, fifty years after 
his heroic act of publishing a famous slave narrative, Frederick 
Douglass' memory was manipulated in a similar way. Pundits used some of 
the same contortions to distance early twentieth-century America from 
racial problems. Many apologists hoped to construe race oppression as 
something that died with the defunct practice of slavery. Some favorably 
contrasted Douglass' Christian patience against the more explicit 
demands of an educated black elite led by W.E.B. DuBois. The stakes in 
race were high and the strategies a little desperate: the beginning of 
the twentieth century found the United States uncomfortably tied up in a 
quagmire not unlike the occupation of Iraq. President McKinley had led 
the United States to war against Spain in 1898 and found himself saddled 
with former Spanish territories, especially Puerto Rico and the 
Philippines, laden with social problems and insurgencies. In his 1901 
autobiography, Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington praises McKinley as 
"the best example" of "those who never grow excited or lose 
self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient and polite." 
[5] Washington's disturbing lack of criticism may be explained by the 
apparent agenda revealed by his article, "Signs of Progress Among the 
Negroes" in a 1900 edition of Century. Washington wanted to export his 
Tuskegee model for black education to the newly acquired Caribbean 
territories full of Spanish-speaking Negroes who, as he says in Century, 
"are largely an agricultural people, and for this reason, in addition to 
a higher degree of mental and religious training, they need the same 
agricultural, mechanical, and domestic training that is fast helping the 
negroes in our Southern States." Washington continues: "Industrial 
training will not only help them to the ownership of property, habits of 
thrift and economy, but the acquiring of these elements of strength will 
go further than anything else in improving the moral and religious 
condition of the masses, just as has been and is true of my people in 
the Southern States." [6]

Washington's idealistic vision of Americans uplifting "liberated" blacks 
from the former Spanish colonies came at a time when countless American 
intellectuals were decrying the effects of the Spanish-American War. To 
counteract war guilt and charges of racism toward "little brown 
brothers" in the Philippines and the Caribbean, Washington employed his 
own race's history as a way of enforcing paternalism onto other races. 
And to do so, Washington used the sanctified memory of Douglass, who had 
only recently died.

In his 1901 autobiography, Washington describes what happened years 
earlier, when Douglass was told to move from the whites-only car of a 
train, to the section reserved for Negroes:

     This reminds me of a conversation which I once had with the Hon. 
Frederick Douglass. At one time Mr. Douglass was travelling in the state 
of Pennsylvania, and was forced, on account of his colour, to ride in 
the baggage-car, in spite of the fact that he had paid the same price 
for his passage that the other passengers had paid. When some of the 
white passengers went into the baggage-car to console Mr. Douglass, and 
one of them said to him: "I am sorry, Mr. Douglass, that you have been 
degraded in this manner," Mr. Douglass straightened himself up on the 
box upon which he was sitting, and replied: "They cannot degrade 
Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am 
not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but 
those who are inflicting it upon me." [7]

A troubling nuance hides beneath the surface praise of Douglass: Heroism 
is not resisting. Heroism is not making a scene. Instead, heroism means 
accepting with grace the restrictions unfairly imposed, only with an 
internal sense of dignity. Booker T. Washington is a hero in his own 
right for advancing industrial education; nonetheless he made several 
unsavory claims in Up from Slavery, including the falsehood that the Klu 
Klux Klan did not exist [8] and specious generalizations about black 
people's profligacy based on what he observed as a guest in a few 
families' homes. [9] His main detractor, DuBois, criticized Washington 
for using his autobiography to silence the protests of educated black 
men, many of whom did not want to accept Jim Crow laws with the patient 
dignity Washington attributed to Douglass. (Since it is Washington 
telling the story and not Douglass, it would be unfair to assume that 
the description of Douglass' reaction to post-bellum segregation in Up 
from Slavery accurately reflected Douglass' philosophy.) DuBois attacks 
Washington for encouraging silence: "the hushing of the criticism of 
honest opponents is a dangerous thing. It leads some of the best of the 
critics to unfortunate silence and paralysis of effort, and others to 
burst into speech so passionately and intemperately as to lose 
listeners." [10]

The early twentieth century and early twenty-first century share a 
tormented racial landscape. In both settings, it is easy for the 
shameful crime of racism to seem like a thing of the past. The Civil War 
ended in 1865 and The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965: forty years 
later, in both cases, America was/is a little tired of race and anxious 
to stop thinking about it. Nonetheless, in both cases, African Americans 
still confront(ed) the persistent racism that never went away, and new 
races keep/kept complicating the equation because of imperialism, global 
migration, and war. Booker T. Washington used African American 
experience to abet the exploitation of Asians and Latinos in 1901. In 
October 2005, Lou Dobbs interviewed Jesse Jackson and prodded him to 
admit that illegal immigrants from Mexico were stealing jobs from 
unemployed black people in New Orleans. Dobbs' program on CNN has become 
an endless crusade against immigrants (especially Latinos, Asians, and 
Muslims), whom Dobbs has blamed for terrorism, taxes, real estate scams, 
crime, and the bus that blew up during the evacuation of Houston before 
Hurricane Rita--as a final coup de grace, Dobbs finally finds a way to 
blame people of color for the sufferings of people of color. Rosa Parks 
will soon be used in the same way. The tactics are remarkably similar 
and should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention to race 
(unfortunately, few people are.) Where there are signs of persistent 
racial problems, such as Jim Crow back then, and Hurricane Katrina now, 
one camp usually advises people of color not to complain too much, to be 
"quiet" and "unassuming" and to "go slowly." Supposedly, we hear, this 
means being like the dead black heroes of a romanticized past--Frederick 
Douglass with his inner dignity in a segregated train car, Rosa Parks 
with her small seamstress body and unassuming angelic nonviolence.

One of the most astute people to deconstruct racial hypocrisy was James 
Baldwin, when he quoted Thurgood Marshall as saying, "They don't mean go 
slow." [11] Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass were not patient, 
unassuming, meek, or angelic; and only the most perverted logic of 
historical denial could ever lead us to characterize them as such. They 
were heroes because they fought, they complained, and they stood strong 
in the face of entire societies wanting them to shut up or die. Nor, I 
would contend, were they entirely nonviolent. It is an aggressive act to 
initiate a boycott and one that knowingly provokes a violent backlash. 
Douglass' famous chiasmus that "you have seen how a man became a slave, 
now you will see how a slave became a man," occurs, after all, after he 
physically strikes the white man determined to beat him into submission. 
Nothing will make me happier than seeing Rosa Parks brought back out of 
the Capitol Rotunda, where our memories of her can breath again--that 
is, as long as we can still remember who she really was.

Robert O. Lopez is a frequent contributor to Buffalo Report. He can be 
reached at: lopezro at camden.rutgers.edu

[1] Live From. Narr. Kyra Phillips. CNN. 31 Oct 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Liberation. 5 Sept 2005.

[4] Powers, Richard Gid. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. 
New York: Free Press, 1987. 482.

[5] Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery (1901). New York: Dover, 1995. 88.

[6] Washington, Booker T. "Signs of Progress Among the Negroes." Century 
Magazine 1900. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 31 Oct 2005 .

[7] Washington, Up from Slavery, 47-48.

[8] Ibid., 38.

[9] Ibid., 51-56. Washington notes with indignation, for example, that 
he visited a home that had "One fork, and a sixty-dollar organ!" (54).

[10] DuBois, W.E.B. Souls of Black Folks (1903). New York: Penguin, 
1989. 39-40.

[11] Baldwin, James. "Faulkner and Desegregation." Collected Essays. Ed. 
Library of America. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 
1998. 209.




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