I long ago rejected the “great man” theory of history. The people we elevate to heroic status get there mostly because they were in the right place at the right time. When the planets align just so, history-making moments arrive: an iconic event like the Flint sit-down strike or the Montgomery bus boycott takes place. As with most such occurrences, there were earlier similar events that just didn’t take off. If they had we would associate them with different individuals.
America’s dysfunctional obsession with individualism is part of the reason too much attention is paid to “great men.” It’s why Howard Zinn and others who focus on ordinary people doing extraordinary things are considered “revisionists’ and/or outside the boundaries of “real” history.
Which is not to say that individuals don’t matter or that they don’t take courageous or smart or historically significant actions. They do. Part of how we motivate ourselves and our young people to reach for social justice is by celebrating accomplished leaders and risk-takers.
So it was in Detroit this past Saturday, December 1, when a group of about 50 people gathered to honor the 57th anniversary of the day Rosa Parks got arrested in Montgomery, Alabama. The main bus terminal in Detroit is named, fittingly, the Rosa Parks Transit Center. That’s where the event was held.
The organizers came from the Detroit based Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. They did not indulge the hagiography and mythology that is so often associated with Mrs. Parks such as the widespread misconception that she was motivated that day by a random act of “tiredness.” They stayed true to her great resolve, principle, humility and commitment to activism. They paid homage to her role in Montgomery and to the lifetime of social justice work that followed.
In the spirit of Mrs. Parks’ example and politics, they lifted up the men and women who struggle day-to-day with the barely functioning current bus system in Detroit and its suburbs. Victimized by “austerity” budget cuts, corporate machinations and suburban racial hostility to providing any means by which African-Americans from Detroit can enter the suburbs, those who use the buses face daily challenges of malfunctioning equipment, overcrowding and ever-shrinking routes and schedules.
To be sure, some dignitaries spoke at the ceremony. But the most moving comments came from the 2012 Detroit Bus Driver of the Year, the president of the Bus Drivers union and from a cross section of daily bus riders. Mrs. Parks would have been proud of their determination and dignity.
Which brings me to Marvin Miller, the former director of the Major League Baseball Players association. Frankly, I was gratified and surprised at the wide spread attention paid to his death last week. There were many obituaries, sidebars and reminiscences for the man credited with “freeing the slaves” of professional baseball. Tribute was paid to his role in improving conditions for athletes in all of professional sports.
Universally the stories pointed out the injustice by zillionaire baseball owners of repeatedly excluding him from the Baseball Hall Of Fame. In the course of this long running dispute, several years ago, some players started a Thanks Marvin website. It’s a valuable resource to learn about Marvin’s accomplishments.
But what’s most triking about it are the expressions of gratitude from players and sometimes their spouses who are not mega-star, “name-brand” players. This post from Ginny Giusti, wife of Dave Giusti, a pitcher who played for six different teams over fifteen years is an example:
“We kept putting off sending this email as we are having a difficult time finding words that will adequately express our gratitude, admiration and respect for Marvin and all that he did for baseball players. I want to add a personal note in that I have always said that Marvin was one of the most interesting people it has been my honor to meet. I had that opportunity since Dave was a player rep for three teams and we occasionally had the pleasure of going to dinner with Marvin and his wife during spring training.”
I get her point. During the 1995 baseball players strike, I was the communications director for the UAW, a union where Marvin had once worked. (Before the baseball player’s union he had worked for the steel worker’s union too. He was a union man through and through.) Thinking maybe the UAW could play some kind of supportive role for the players as we had done previously for the NFL players during one of their conflicts, I sought out Marvin.
He invited me to lunch. What a treat to talk with such a kind and erudite man. We both lamented the decline of the social vision of unions. He gave me some good advice about approaching the Player’s Union. In truth though, not much came of it. Labor solidarity wasn’t what it used to be either. Over the years the players unions have become more like guilds. They see little in common with “ordinary” workers struggling to form a union or win a strike.
Nevertheless, like Ginny Giusti, I much appreciated the chance to meet and talk with Marvin Miller. And I join with those saluting him. As did Rosa Parks, Miller devoted his entire life to winning power for the people in the face of incredibly wealthy, arrogant, vicious and pig-headed adversaries. Like the bus riders and bus drivers in Detroit and like Mrs. Parks, for that he truly was a great person.
Frank Joyce is a communications consultant to labor and community organizations. He is also a digital artist. For 12 year, Joyce served as director of the Public Relations Publications Department at the UAW.