Let Us Honor Rosa Parks—By Shattering the Myths About Her
by Rick Chamberlin
It is right and good that at this time we should celebrate and honor the life and legacy of Rosa Parks. Her brave, dignified act of civil disobedience on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 precipitated a nonviolent protest movement that awakened our nation to the widespread injustice of discrimination and segregation.
But as we honor Rosa Parks and bid her soul rest, may we also lay to rest the myths that began to form about her almost immediately after she was arrested 50 years ago. In the long run, I believe these myths could do more harm than good to the unfinished struggle for equality in this country.
Perhaps the most damaging myth about Rosa is that she acted alone. In fact, she worked for years with other social justice and civil rights activists prior to her famous action. She served as a secretary for and was a member of her local NAACP chapter. She attended workshops at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee to study racial desegregation tactics and Gandhian resistance methods. While Rosa parks was led from that bus alone, there were many people behind her when she boarded it. Her decision to refuse to move to the back of the bus so that a white rider could have her seat was made in the context of a community.
It is good to remember that, as Parker Palmer has written, even God does not act alone: “In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus…did not act alone—and that is the key to his ‘miracle.’ He acted in concert with others and evoked the abundance of community. Ultimately,” Parker writes, “the body of Christ, so central to incarnational theology, is not the physical body of Jesus but the corporate body of those who gather around the Spirit, wherever it is found.”
Perhaps as Americans we are especially susceptible to the Myth of the Great One. After all, many of us are descended from mavericks and dissenters. Individualism and independence are among our primary values as a nation. Surely some of the blame can be placed at the foot of our modern culture of celebrity.
Myths are not all bad, of course; Joseph Campbell taught us that. One of the good things about myths is that they help us remember people and events that should not be forgotten. If we are not careful, however, we can allow myths to diminish rather than strengthen the impact of an individual’s contribution. Believing our heroes act alone and appear on the scene as if dropped from heaven smoothes the way for our canonization—and eventual distortion—of them.
Often our heroes are cloaked in the myth of infallibility. I used to wince when reminded of Martin Luther King’s adulterous liaisons, believing they tragically weakened his message and his legacy. The older I get, however, the less the man’s indiscretions trouble me (even though I know they were uncovered in a mean spirited attempt by the FBI to discredit him). In the long run, the unvarnished truth always tells a more powerful tale and gives more hope to the rest of us mortals. It is far better to remember King and others like him as ordinary human beings who did extraordinary things with the help of other ordinary people.
I suspect this is one reason King David’s dirty deeds were never censored out of the Bible. Even Jesus’ apparent losses of cool and lapses of faith survived the cut. Consider that blasted fig tree, the moneychangers he gave the bums’ rush, the cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Of course it would be wrong to assume that misdeeds or character flaws are a prerequisite for greatness. I doubt Rosa Parks left much dirt behind. If we are not careful, however, the myths we spin can keep us “in our place” as effectively as any unjust law or institution. Mythologizing our heroes allows us to justify timid and half-hearted action or no action at all. These were one-in-a-million individuals, we tell ourselves. I can’t hope to do the great things they did, so why try so hard.
The best way to honor the memory of Rosa Parks is not to endlessly polish the statues, material and figural, erected in her name, lest we risk turning them into monuments of our own inaction. The greatest tribute we can pay Rosa Parks is to join, as she did, with others already engaged in the struggle to bring about a better world for all.
I wear one of those rubber bracelets that are popular right now. This one is white and bears a single word: ONE. The ONE campaign is an effort to focus the strengths of many organizations and individuals on the issues of global poverty and AIDS. The group takes its name from a song by the Irish rock band U2. Like many of the bands songs, the lyrics of “One” can be interpreted on several levels. They might be about sharing a life in marriage, sharing a country, or sharing a world. The overriding, paradoxical message of the song and of the campaign is one that our founders knew well when they chose for our national seal the phrase E pluribus Unum and it is one Rosa Parks exemplified: the power of one rests in numbers.