Her reaction to being asked to get up and go to the back was one part of a movement that would continue to this day all across America, and Rosa Parks would spend the 1970’s through ’90s speaking on racial injustice.
Sixty years ago on this day, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and settled in to American history. We’ve seen the iconic pictures of Parks getting booked at the police station, or later staged seated on a bus looking pensively out the window. Parks has become one of the great, mythic figures of the Civil Rights era — a kind of sanctified figure who feels worlds away from the current, volatile era of social justice. But she isn’t.
Today’s fight for civil rights and social justice may, on the surface, seem like the very antithesis of the movement in which Parks played an integral part. In many ways, this is true. The intersection of technology, social media, and grassroots activism has produced a very different kind of struggle. The #BlackLivesMatter movement, created by Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, has been criticized for being divisive (“All lives matter!“), disruptive, aimless, and even violent, in the wake of heated protests in Ferguson and, more recently, Chicago.
#BlackLivesMatter protestors are considered a stark contrast to the apparent respectability of the civil rights activists of the 1960s. When we think of those protesters, we think of peaceful black people marching quietly in church clothes, turning the other cheek and nobly rising above the abuse of water-hose wielding police officers and tear gas.
People believe #BlackLivesMatter has failed and will fail to replicate the successes of the Civil Rights era because its overriding message is one of frustration, not “peace and love.” But this perception of the 1960s Civil Rights era as “respectable” and #BlackLivesMatter as disruptive is far too simplistic, disregarding the nuances of both movements.
In an essay for The Washington Post published in August, minister Barbara Reynolds wrote about her frustrations with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, having been a civil rights activist in the 1960s. She wrote:
Trained in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., we were nonviolent activists who won hearts by conveying respectability and changed laws by delivering a message of love and unity…The [#BlackLivesMatter] demonstrations are peppered with hate speech, profanity, and guys with sagging pants that show their underwear.
Reynolds’s frustration with the millennial approach to civil rights is, on a certain level, understandable. But the distinction made between the “respectability” of the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and ’60s and today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement isn’t totally fair.
In our elementary school classrooms Parks has been introduced as the meek Christian woman who refused to give her bus seat up for a white rider simply because she was tired. In actuality, Parks made a calculated act of defiance, orchestrated by the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP of which she was an active and passionate member, designed to be the catalyst for what would become the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s important to remember that part of why Parks was chosen to spark the bus boycott was a question of respectability — she was a seamstress and a secretary, “Somebody [we] could win with,” as chapter president E.D. Nixon explained later. (NAACP Youth Council member Claudette Colvin had been the organization’s first choice, but was dropped after she became pregnant at 15.)
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