Juan Williams: The Long History of a Bus Ride

Roundup: Talking About History

ROSA PARKS led an inspiring life. Unfortunately, we rarely hear about it.

That may sound surprising at a time when Rosa Parks is probably mentioned in every American history textbook and is the subject of dozens of biographies. The problem is that her story is usually presented as a simplistic morality tale. It is a paint-by-the numbers picture of virtue that goes like this:

On Dec. 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks is an ordinary 42-year-old seamstress in downtown Montgomery, Ala. She leaves work and gets on the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home. When the whites-only section fills up, the bus driver yells at Mrs. Parks to give up her seat to a white man. She refuses and is arrested. Simply by sitting on a bus, Mrs. Parks sets off the year-long Montgomery bus boycott that galvanizes national attention, brings the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the start of his journey as a civil rights leader and creates a model of nonviolent protest against racial segregation.

There's no denying the appeal of this story - her body began lying in honor in the Capitol yesterday. But this telling of the tale does a disservice to Mrs. Parks and twists the history of the civil rights movement. Her story is about more than one bus ride. And the civil rights movement is more than one moment of defiance. The focus on Rosa Parks leads to the neglect of other civil rights pioneers who did far more to shape history.

Take two other black women who died recently with much less attention to their life work. Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to be a federal judge, was an N.A.A.C.P. lawyer who helped to write briefs used in arguing the Brown school desegregation case. In the 50's, she went into hostile towns all over the South and won case after case to make sure that their school districts really integrated. She also directed the legal campaign that led to the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi and stood by him as he faced down segregationist violence to enroll. And she stayed with Medgar Evers as he battled the racists who eventually killed him.

Another woman who recently died, C. DeLores Tucker, didn't face that kind of drama. But she broke through political barriers to become Pennsylvania's commonwealth secretary, then blazed new paths by working to get other black people into elected office and challenging misogyny in rap music.

The one-dimensional telling of one day in the life of Rosa Parks takes her away from the real story - and to my mind the really inspiring story - of extraordinary black women like Judge Motley and Ms. Tucker, who rose from working-class backgrounds to become dedicated to creating social change. ...

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