01 November 2005

Rosa Parks, the tide of history, and other stories

Jim Putnam calls my attention today to an article by Paul Loeb: The Real Rosa Parks. [1] I’m glad of it for a number of reasons – not least because it’s a very good, thoughtful article.

It’s a timely reminder, at the time when Ms Parks has just died, of two realities: that she was as courageous as we are told she was, and that her courage was not as we are usually told it was. I won’t go further into that now: read Loeb’s article, not my potted version of it. I’ll move on to my other reasons for being glad that it was brought to my attention.

First of all, there is the fact that Rosa Parks was not, as we are encouraged to believe, the only woman who refused to go to the back of the bus or give up her seat to a white person. There were others, but their faces and names have not come down to us in the aura that has attached itself to Rosa Parks. The reason we remember Parks, but not these others, is unromantic: the NAACP rallied behind Parks, but declined to do so for the others.

Why did they refuse their support to the others? Because successful civil rights movements, whatever we like (and need) to believe, are not romantic or quixotic enterprises and, as Timothy B Tyson makes clear in Blood Done Sign My Name[2], the American black civil rights movement was no exception. Political change is brought about by many things, all of which are necessary and none sufficient – and one of these is usually a group which is capable of cold, hard, strategic thinking. NAACP had that capability, and what it needed was not a scatter of injustices to contest but a cause celebré to develop. Rosa Parks was that cause celebré; Loeb shows how it was planned, developed and stage managed. As he says, that does not detract from Parks’ courage: on the contrary, it underlines that courage. It does, however, deflate the mythical hype which both deceives and devalues.

Jim and I have, in the past, had discussions about the rôle and significance of the individual in history. The two extremes on this topic are these. First, on the one hand, that history is driven forward by milestone moments, triggered by crucial individual human beings, which kick start impetus for new phases of change. Second, on the other hand, that history moves forward in vast waves and undertows of change which, as a side effect, throw up nexuses and individuals which we later use as mental “book marks” for simplifying and codifying our understanding of what has happened to us. Jim is US American; I am European; when Jim tends toward the first view, I towards the second, we reflect, to some extent, the tendencies of our societies.

I firmly believe that, had Einstein never been born, another mind (or other minds, plural) would have framed the same insights. The same voice and expression would have been given to the growing understanding of physics whose time had come and would have happened whatever the actions or configuration of individual human beings and societies. Perhaps if the 1939 to 1945 world war had not happened, the splitting of the atom would have happened a little later, or in a different part of the world; but happen it would have done.

Similarly, if Rosa Parks had not existed, or the NAACP had not existed, the black civil rights movement in the US would have flowed on to the same conclusions using other vessels.

Does my view of history devalue individuals or their efforts and sacrifices? Not at all. Historic forces may roll on without regard for individuals, and individuals may be shaped by historic forces, but those individuals remain themselves and act heroically (or meanly) within the context in which they find themselves – and are no less for that. My friend Clarissa, currently roaming the world on an eight metre sailing boat, is utterly incapable of affecting by one iota the flow of the sea; but that doesn’t diminish the courage and determination which she displays in navigating it, nor what she does in the places and situations to which the flow of the sea delivers her. Jim and I can disagree about the impact of history on Rosa Parks and that of Rosa Parks on history without in any way dissenting from the vital significance of both.

1. Loeb, P. The Real Rosa Parks. Working for change, 2005. http://www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?ItemID=11731
2. Tyson, T.B. Blood done sign my name. 2005: Three Rivers Press. 355. 1400083117

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