A Fuller Tribute to Rosa Parks

February 4 would have been Rosa Parks’s 101st birthday. During the past year of her centennial, she was honored with a stamp and a statue, but the tributes reflect the contemporary political uses of civil-rights memorialization and distort her life and legacy. A fitting tribute to Rosa Parks requires seeing the full scope of her political life, and her emphasis on changing the present.

A year ago, in a rare bipartisan collaboration, Congressional leaders in both parties joined President Obama to dedicate the first statue of a black person in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. A seated Rosa Parks, clutching her purse and looking much older than the 42 years she was on the day she was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus, now sits where she can be seen by a statue of the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis.

The House speaker, John Boehner, opened the dedication by noting how the statue’s placement in the hall embodies “the vision of a more perfect union.” The president praised civil-rights activists, noting that “it is because of these men and women that I stand here today.” “Rosa Parks simply did what was natural,” Nancy Pelosi asserted, repeating one of the central myths of Parks’s bus ride. “She was tired, so she sat down.”

August saw a replay of such pageantry amid not one but two 50th-anniversary commemorations of the March on Washington, including speeches by President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Such celebrations pay well-deserved homage to the courage and dedication of Parks and her comrades. But they also skip over the second half of Parks’s political life and relegate the struggle for racial justice firmly to the past.

Eight months after the bus boycott ended, unable to find work, in poor health, and continuing to face death threats, Parks, with her family, was forced to leave Montgomery for Detroit, a “promised land that wasn’t,” she later said. There she did not rest but joined new and old comrades to fight the racism of the Jim Crow North. Indeed, she would spend more of her life in Michigan than in Alabama.

An avid union supporter and early opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, she volunteered to work on John Conyers’s long-shot 1964 campaign for a new Congressional seat in Michigan and “Jobs, Justice, Peace.” Conyers hired Parks in 1965 to be part of his Detroit staff. Living, she said, in the “heart of the ghetto” herself, she did constituent work on issues such as police brutality, school segregation, inequitable public services, poverty, and job discrimination—the plagues of Northern racism.

Parks held out her greatest hope for the spirit and militancy of young people. Her personal hero was Malcolm X. Her longstanding political commitments to self-defense, black history, economic justice, prisoner defense, anticolonialism, and independent black political power intersected with key aspects of the Black Power movement. With other protesters starting in the late 1960s and 1970s, she demonstrated against the Vietnam War and U.S. policy in Central America, participated in the anti-apartheid divestment movement, and, eight days after 9/11, joined other civil-rights activists in a letter decrying retaliation or war and calling on the United States to work with the international community to find justice.

Irritated by the idea that the civil-rights movement was over, Parks fought to the end of her life, in 2005, for a criminal-justice system fair and just to people of color, unfettered voting rights, educational access and equity, real assistance to the poor, and an end to U.S. wars of occupation—goals still far from complete. And she lamented how her symbol had been used to place the struggle in the past: “They equate me along with Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, and ask if I knew them.”

The lifelong freedom fighter is honored and paradoxically reduced to a caricatured bronze statue seated in the halls of the Capitol.

Holding ceremonies to commemorate civil-rights leaders has become an act of racial justice in itself, a stand-in for more-concrete action. A vein of national self-congratulation runs through that memorialization—“look how far we’ve come, look how good we are to honor this history,” it implicitly announces. The subtext was made explicit in December, when the Republican National Committee tweeted on the 58th anniversary of Parks’s bus arrest: “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” While the RNC was rapidly skewered for the tweet, the tendency to place the movement in the past is far more commonplace that we like to acknowledge.

Indeed, referencing the civil-rights movement plays a key symbolic role in the Obama presidency. By honoring the history of the movement, the president can publicly mark the presence of racial injustice in America and pay tribute to the courageous black freedom fighters who propelled it—without having to address the scourge of racial inequality today. And the public soaks it up as a way to bask in its own association with that grand historical line.

When Rosa Parks died, the president, then a U.S. senator, said we “should not limit our commemorations to lofty eulogies”; in the shadow of her bronze statue in 2013, he laid down a charge for action rhetorically—“we make excuses for inaction”—that he himself did not take up, while across the street the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Shelby v. Holder, which claimed voting-rights protections were no longer necessary.

The history of the civil-rights movement, with Rosa Parks as its heroine, has become a quintessentially American narrative of individual accomplishment and democratic progress. The political uses of this fable are many. We celebrate individuals, rather than the movements they were part of, forget the decades of castigation and red-baiting those groups endured, and further marginalize contemporary movements for social justice. We like our acts of courage in the past—where they require little of us in the present. We render Parks and her comrades so very distant from us, the noble cast of February’s Black History Month waving in our rear-view mirror.

On Rosa Parks’s 101st birthday, let us reckon with her lifetime of political work, see her tired and angry and burned out and yet still persevering, understand her work against racial injustice continued far beyond the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. To value her willingness to do the nitty-gritty work of political activism day after day, decade after decade, raises very different questions about the sacrifice and enduring effort real social change requires. More important, it asks us to think differently about what we must do in the present.

Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press, 2013).

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