Robert Oscar Lopez: Saving Rosa Parks from American hypocrisy

Roundup: Talking About History

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....

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