The quiet troublemaker
“At the time I was arrested, I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.” — Rosa Parks
The day passed with so little fanfare, you probably missed it. Earlier this month was the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks.
It is perhaps fitting that Parks’ birthday didn’t generate a great deal of attention. Though committed to her work as an activist, she was never one to seek the limelight. It is striking how different her public image is from her actual life history.
I am young enough to have learned about Parks in school. What I was taught is similar to what was reported in the national media at the time. They weren’t hostile to the nascent civil rights movement; they were in fact largely supportive.
But, the media’s representation of Parks was that of a quiet seamstress who just got fed up one day and refused to give up her seat on a bus. The media may have been supportive — they were careful to refer to her Christian faith and declared her definitively “not a troublemaker” — but a troublemaker she was, and a great one.
In fact, as is pointed out in the recent biography, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” by Jeanne Theoharis, Parks’ life was one of lifelong activism. Prior to the Montgomery bus boycott, she was secretary of the NAACP. She already had more than a decade of activism on behalf of racial justice and had registered to vote long before most African-Americans were able to — though it took three tries.
The armed driver who demanded Parks give up her seat had already passed her by on at least one occasion because he knew of her activism. Black riders were required to pay at the front of the bus, then exit and reenter by the back door. On at least one occasion, the driver took off after she had paid, leaving her to walk home in the rain.
Involvement in the movement required great sacrifice for Parks. She lost her job, and while she gained national fame, her family lived in dire poverty for years. The movement she helped spark was taken over by middle class preachers and leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humble working class blacks were often left behind, especially when it came to leadership positions.
Just as her public image seems to exclude her pre-1955 activism, her life after Montgomery is also little known. Like many African-Americans, she moved north, where she continued to work as a seamstress and continued her quiet activism.
Parks never allowed her personal problems or the limitations she faced to be stumbling blocks or to make her bitter. She knew the movement was more important than herself as an individual and her life reflected it. We need more like her.
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On another note, I’m wondering if someone can explain something to me about the recent state of the union address.
The official Republican Party response was provided by Marco Rubio, a TEA Party favorite and possible 2016 presidential contender. But, the TEA Party response came from Rand Paul, the junior senator from Kentucky.
Can someone tell me why the media showed Paul’s address? The TEA Party is not a political party. It is a wing of the Republican Party. Essentially, the media allowed the Republicans two responses to President Obama’s address, which they have done for two or three years now.
If the TEA Party speech deserved coverage, the Congressional Progressive Caucus should have been allowed time as well. That group represents a larger constituency in congress and its perspective is shared by a larger portion of the American people than the TEA party.
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On the other hand, I am bewildered by the criticism of Rubio and his case of dry-mouth. It may have been fun for comedians, but this is hardly a substantive issue. I’ll never be accused of being a great public speaker, but on those occasions when I am called on to do so, you had better believe I have some water nearby.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at email@example.com.