[Marxism] 1999 on Rosa Parks
cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Fri Nov 25 08:03:44 MST 2005
NOT AS SIMPLE AS THAT...
by John Lacny
I recently saw a display for Women's History Month which featured
a quotation from Rosa Parks: "All I was doing was trying to get home from
work." For the sake of clarifying a piece of women's history-- and of
history in general-- it is necessary to note that the statement is
preposterous. I have no doubt that Parks actually said it; however, it
ought to be taken about as seriously as any statement a person would make
in a similar situation.
This is to say that it should not be taken seriously at all, for
anyone who has ever confronted authority knows the value of the
well-phrased understatement or the sarcastic falsehood, coupled with
feigned surprise: "Why, officer, I'm only trying to ask the CEO a few
questions!" Or: "But my dear public official, surely once you hear about
the barbarities for which Mr. Kissinger is responsible, you will have him
arrested for war crimes!"
No, Rosa Parks knew what she was doing on December 1, 1955, when
she refused to relinquish her seat to a white man on a Montgomery,
Alabama, bus. She had even tried something like it before: in 1943, Parks
had been kicked off another bus for failing to enter through the back
door. Like Martin Luther King, she had undergone training in civil
disobedience at the Highlander Folk School, a radical anti-racist
institution in Tennessee with origins in the labor movement of the 1930s
and the Communist Party milieu. She was secretary of the Montgomery
chapter of the NAACP, and she and her cohorts had worked out a plan of
action before she said that famous "No" in 1955.
So in a purely literal sense it is true that Rosa Parks was merely
trying to get home from work, but the hallmark of an oppressive society is
that it often impedes what ought to be normal human activities. Rosa
Parks understood this full well, knew that her actions could have serious
repercussions, and soberly assessed the situation in collaboration with
others in order to achieve maximum political impact.
Her case was not an isolated one. The effects of years of
organizing manifested themselves throughout the South in the 1950s and
1960s. In remote corners of Alabama, volunteers from the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)-- expecting to find docile and
cowed populations-- were surprised to see poor Black farmers showing up
with guns at voter registration drives. A little research revealed that
these areas had been the sites of Communist-led tenant organizing in the
If you're an average American, you knew none of this, and-- if
you'll permit me the cliche-- it's no accident. If more people knew what
it took to make social change, the world would soon be a different place.
A functioning social system does not design a method to self-destruct,
which is why you are taught in high school history classes that Rosa Parks
would not get up from her seat simply because she was tired, or that the
New Deal or the Civil Rights Act came about because the Chief Executive of
the day decided it would be a good idea.
Change does not occur by happenstance or through the good will of
liberal policy planners. Instead, it is invariably the fruit of a lot of
hard work on the part of activists who toil away at things not just for
years, but literally for decades. For most of that time, "normal" people
see them as foolhardy, pointlessly fanatical or even crazy. (Some of them
*are* crazy, but that is beside the point.) And when their efforts result
in any level of success, such activists then run the risk of being either
consigned to historical oblivion or converted into harmless symbols. (The
latter is the case with Rosa Parks and with the socialist Martin Luther
We have a long way to go before we get home, and we ought to be
pleased that there are a few among us who are willing to get out and walk
if the bus is heading in the wrong direction.
John Lacny wants to see Paul Robeson on a postage stamp.
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