Rosa Parks statue by sculptor Eugene Daub in the U.S. Capitol.
While much of the talk is about how Rosa Parks is being honored by having her statue placed in the Capitol Rotunda along with the bronzes and marble depictions mostly of presidents, it is, in fact, the Rotunda that is honored by her presence. She was one of those Americans who worked—bravely, through economic hardship and, in her younger years, under the threat of violence—to push the United States into living up to the ideals inscribed in its founding documents.
When Parks died in 2005, there was an outpouring of chatter from much of the media that presented this hero as a meek, unassuming woman who, in simple frustration over one of the personal impacts of Jim Crow laws, quietly decided one day that she'd had enough and sat down in the whites-only section of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. And refused to budge until she was arrested and hauled off. Out of that act, preceded by the arrests of two other African American passengers, was sparked a 13-month bus boycott that forever changed the civil rights movement. For many, her refusal to move to the back of the bus is all for which she is remembered.
Mary C. Curtis put that perspective to rest in a Wednesday column at the Washington Post , saying that as the nation places on a pedestal in the Capitol, "it can pay her the tribute of letting her step down from it and be appreciated for the complex, beautiful, righteously angry woman she was."
As Obama noted, Parks did not take that courageous action in a vacuum. She had long been a member of the NAACP, part of a decades-long movement that he said had made it possible for him to become president. And, just as Parks did not begin her activism on that bus more than 57 years ago, she did not end it there. The boycott gave impetus to other protests that led to an end of Jim Crow and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ironically, as the praise at the unveiling ceremony was pronounced, Supreme Court justices were hearing oral argument that most observers believe will lead to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act that continues to be used to block discriminatory voting laws. Please continue to read about Parks's legacy below the fold.
This over-simplification—however seemingly innocuous on its face—does a dangerous disservice to Ms. Parks' legacy. Casting her as the quiet, modest heroine of the civil rights drama allows commentators to discredit those engaged in supposedly more vocal, strident opposition to racism and discrimination as "militants" making unreasonable demands on society and its power structure.President Obama said at the unveiling: "We do well by placing a statue of her here. But we can do no greater honor to her memory than to carry forward the power of her principle and a courage born of conviction."
This characterization of Ms. Parks also threatens to blunt the true nature of her protest. By refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks was being confrontantional, provocative, transgressive, defiant; she was resisting and challenging oppression, and above all, fighting back.
Yes! Carrying it forward. In this year of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, the best way to honor Rosa Parks is to remember that the fight for freedom and equality in America is not over. And to do as she did all her life: keep struggling.