Saving Rosa Parks from American Hypocrisy

Who can argue with the honors paid to Rosa Parks, the woman described repeatedly as “the mother of the Civil Rights movement”? As the first woman ever to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda where, not too long ago, Ronald Reagan’s corpse lay, she is the heroine nobody can find fault with. Fifty years ago, she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. In this simple act, the story goes, the American civil rights movement was born.

I wish the story could end on that high note. Instead, a hagiography filled with hypocrisy is slowly turning Rosa Parks into a conservative weapon against the present generation of antiracist activists, who are already being contrasted against Park’s “unassuming” and “modest” way of changing things, to quote Kyra Phillips on CNN. After celebrating Parks’ diminutive size and “quiet” courage, Phillips asked Reverend Joseph Lowery, an African American civil rights advocate, how Parks’ memory made him feel about all the current-day commentators who are “always on the TV set complaining and shouting.” Phillips was convinced that Parks was “very different;” in fact, a few minutes earlier both Phillips and Lowery had agreed that Parks was an angel chosen by God. [1] Even Parks’ defiance was assumed only by divine right, a right not likely to be conferred on any people of color who wish to continue fighting for equality today.

Skepticism at times like this borders on bad taste, but a small dose of skepticism is necessary to save Rosa Parks from some bad-faith hero worship poised to handicap the very struggle she contributed to. As Rev. Lowery retorted to Phillips, now is not the time to let people “praise Rosa Parks through one side of their mouths” and then from the other side, back Bush’s reactionary pick for the Supreme Court. [2] A realigned Court could easily roll back affirmative action, and Alito’s draconian record on prison rights would hurt the African American inmate population (which, among males at least, is still larger than the number of blacks in college).

The same trend occurred last year, upon the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. On one rhetorical level, spokespeople from all sides of the political spectrum sang odes to the progress made since the 1950s. Heartfelt recollections surfaced from countless famous black people, including both superstars and scholars, who spent their childhoods in the segregated South. On a hidden level, however, the discussion made it harder for younger minorities, who have no authenticating memories of pre-1960s segregation, to speak frankly about racial inequality today. And on the lowest level of the rhetoric, the vulgar discussion on talk shows and call-in programs stated what the saccharine speeches on the top level were implying but not saying directly: The struggle was over, because racism was a thing of the past. Unhappiness in the 21st century is a function of ingratitude and the cultural flaws of people of color themselves, over which white people have no power.

Between the Brown anniversary and Parks’ death, Hurricane Katrina intervened, changing things. American racial tensions became as globally evident as they were in the Rodney King riots thirteen years earlier. I was hoping for a frank discussion of America’s present racial problems; if any good could come out of the disastrous death toll in the Gulf states, at least we could take the opportunity to update our consciousness and abandon the trite clichés about racism existing fifty years ago “but not today.” To our country’s credit, some discussion did surface in the media. Prominent scholars were invited onto CNN, MSNBC, and others, to discuss the racial implications of Katrina. But we can always count on the smug white sanctimony of men like Lou Dobbs of CNN, who quickly poked at race scholars to ask, “haven’t these black spokespeople had anything to say about the fact that New Orleans’ mayor was black?” Race sputtered as a topic for a little while and seemed, somehow, to be forgotten. And maybe people of color needed to forget it for a while, because the press was sending mixed messages and the discussion seemed to expose all of us to too much risk. At one moment, the viewer was asked to sympathize with black mothers whose infants were dehydrated at the Superdome; at the next moment, reporters shared the lurid stories about rape and people firing at the rescue workers who were trying to save them (there was no need to tag these monsters as black, since the streaming images created a bizarre epistemology that assured us that they were black before anyone needed to ask.) Rape and irrational violence are not exactly new stereotypes to affix to men of color, and the underlying threat in the press was simple: talk too much about racial inequality and we will Willie Hortonize the whole damn city.

“Le Rage des Oubliés,” ran the headline of France’s Liberation in the shameful days after Katrina struck. “The Rage of the Forgotten.” The picture below the headline featured a lone black woman in tattered clothes, screaming at the top of her lungs on one of the battered streets of New Orleans, presumably one of the many African Americans left stranded without food or water. [3] The tragic truth in the French critique of American racism was its prophetic rather than descriptive quality: the angry ones were going to be forgotten, because they were angry. The American press knows two courses of action when dealing with angry minorities: crush them or erase them.

With extreme sadness, I see Rosa Parks slowly being marshaled in the latter course. “Unassuming,” “humble,” this “small-framed” “seamstress” “chosen by God” is the perfect antidote to the “Rage des Oubliés.” Instead of discussing Rosa Parks’ readiness for confrontation or how enraged she must have felt about the Montgomery law, the adjectives emphasize her sacrificial meekness. Kyra Phillips may have simply blurted the question that much of white America is thinking but refuses to ask: “now what do you think of all those commentators who keep complaining all the time on the television, when Rosa Parks’ approach was so different?”

In death, she is brought into the Capitol Rotunda. The honor is not hers, I would argue, but the Rotunda’s. In a sickening irony, she lies in the same spot that served to honor J. Edgar Hoover’s corpse shortly after his death on May 4, 1972. [4] Hoover, the longest-lasting head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, worked indefatigably to destroy everything that Rosa Parks stood for. To place her coffin inside the Rotunda is a not-too-subtle act of ownership by the conservative Washington camp that follows in Hoover’s footsteps, not Rosa Parks’. Her story will now belong to someone else, and this time, she cannot refuse to be placed where they want to place her. The story will now go something like this: racism once existed, but it does not anymore. It ended because God chose one small seamstress, and she defied the law, but she defied it meekly, quietly, unassumingly, without pride or aggression. If you are patient and quiet, you will be remembered. If you are angry or militant, you will be forgotten, just as the French headline says.

To his great credit, Reverend Joseph Lowery politely resisted Kyra Phillips’ innuendoes on CNN. “It takes all approaches,” Lowery said. “I do not condone violence, but I do condone militancy.” Phillips, blonde and smiling, may or may not have understood that Lowery was telling her she was wrong. She did not say anything in response. But the endless photographs of Rosa Parks to follow simply reinforced everything Phillips had said: black-and-white pictures of a bygone era, the small “quiet angel” as Lowery called her, serenely defying her oppressors in a feminine, almost Christ-like sacrifice consciously differentiated from the black woman screaming at the top of her lungs in the wreckage of New Orleans.

Turning heroes against their causes is a very old routine in American racial history. When I teach African American literature to college students, I always observe how well students have learned the “I love Martin Luther King but I hate Malcolm X” game. They vaunt Frederick Douglass’ method of opposing slavery through self-education and they condemn Nat Turner’s violence (in a mock trial I held in Camden, New Jersey, for instance, the students called Douglass’ ghost to the stand and used his testimony to convict Turner.) Someone somewhere usually manages to rewrite racial history in the United States to instill:

(1) indifference to the racial problems of the present,

(2) a false remembrance of past heroism in the face of an injustice that is supposedly gone, and

(3) an even falser nostalgia for the classier, more polite, more Christian, nicer, and more acceptable forms of antiracist resistance that used to exist.

All this rewriting can be translated to the crass thought, “they don’t make colored people the way they used to.”

African Americans are not immune to this willful amnesia. Footage of Condoleezza Rice waving to the crowds at an event to honor Rosa Parks’ memory should remind us of that. When he died in 1895, fifty years after his heroic act of publishing a famous slave narrative, Frederick Douglass’ memory was manipulated in a similar way. Pundits used some of the same contortions to distance early twentieth-century America from racial problems. Many apologists hoped to construe race oppression as something that died with the defunct practice of slavery. Some favorably contrasted Douglass’ Christian patience against the more explicit demands of an educated black elite led by W.E.B. DuBois. The stakes in race were high and the strategies a little desperate: the beginning of the twentieth century found the United States uncomfortably tied up in a quagmire not unlike the occupation of Iraq. President McKinley had led the United States to war against Spain in 1898 and found himself saddled with former Spanish territories, especially Puerto Rico and the Philippines, laden with social problems and insurgencies. In his 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington praises McKinley as “the best example” of “those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient and polite.” [5] Washington’s disturbing lack of criticism may be explained by the apparent agenda revealed by his article, “Signs of Progress Among the Negroes” in a 1900 edition of Century. Washington wanted to export his Tuskegee model for black education to the newly acquired Caribbean territories full of Spanish-speaking Negroes who, as he says in Century, “are largely an agricultural people, and for this reason, in addition to a higher degree of mental and religious training, they need the same agricultural, mechanical, and domestic training that is fast helping the negroes in our Southern States.” Washington continues: “Industrial training will not only help them to the ownership of property, habits of thrift and economy, but the acquiring of these elements of strength will go further than anything else in improving the moral and religious condition of the masses, just as has been and is true of my people in the Southern States.” [6]

Washington’s idealistic vision of Americans uplifting “liberated” blacks from the former Spanish colonies came at a time when countless American intellectuals were decrying the effects of the Spanish-American War. To counteract war guilt and charges of racism toward “little brown brothers” in the Philippines and the Caribbean, Washington employed his own race’s history as a way of enforcing paternalism onto other races. And to do so, Washington used the sanctified memory of Douglass, who had only recently died.

In his 1901 autobiography, Washington describes what happened years earlier, when Douglass was told to move from the whites-only car of a train, to the section reserved for Negroes:

This reminds me of a conversation which I once had with the Hon. Frederick Douglass. At one time Mr. Douglass was travelling in the state of Pennsylvania, and was forced, on account of his colour, to ride in the baggage-car, in spite of the fact that he had paid the same price for his passage that the other passengers had paid. When some of the white passengers went into the baggage-car to console Mr. Douglass, and one of them said to him: “I am sorry, Mr. Douglass, that you have been degraded in this manner,” Mr. Douglass straightened himself up on the box upon which he was sitting, and replied: “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me.” [7]

A troubling nuance hides beneath the surface praise of Douglass: Heroism is not resisting. Heroism is not making a scene. Instead, heroism means accepting with grace the restrictions unfairly imposed, only with an internal sense of dignity. Booker T. Washington is a hero in his own right for advancing industrial education; nonetheless he made several unsavory claims in Up from Slavery, including the falsehood that the Klu Klux Klan did not exist [8] and specious generalizations about black people’s profligacy based on what he observed as a guest in a few families’ homes. [9] His main detractor, DuBois, criticized Washington for using his autobiography to silence the protests of educated black men, many of whom did not want to accept Jim Crow laws with the patient dignity Washington attributed to Douglass. (Since it is Washington telling the story and not Douglass, it would be unfair to assume that the description of Douglass’ reaction to post-bellum segregation in Up from Slavery accurately reflected Douglass’ philosophy.) DuBois attacks Washington for encouraging silence: “the hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing. It leads some of the best of the critics to unfortunate silence and paralysis of effort, and others to burst into speech so passionately and intemperately as to lose listeners.” [10]

The early twentieth century and early twenty-first century share a tormented racial landscape. In both settings, it is easy for the shameful crime of racism to seem like a thing of the past. The Civil War ended in 1865 and The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965: forty years later, in both cases, America was/is a little tired of race and anxious to stop thinking about it. Nonetheless, in both cases, African Americans still confront(ed) the persistent racism that never went away, and new races keep/kept complicating the equation because of imperialism, global migration, and war. Booker T. Washington used African American experience to abet the exploitation of Asians and Latinos in 1901. In October 2005, Lou Dobbs interviewed Jesse Jackson and prodded him to admit that illegal immigrants from Mexico were stealing jobs from unemployed black people in New Orleans. Dobbs’ program on CNN has become an endless crusade against immigrants (especially Latinos, Asians, and Muslims), whom Dobbs has blamed for terrorism, taxes, real estate scams, crime, and the bus that blew up during the evacuation of Houston before Hurricane Rita–as a final coup de grace, Dobbs finally finds a way to blame people of color for the sufferings of people of color. Rosa Parks will soon be used in the same way. The tactics are remarkably similar and should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention to race (unfortunately, few people are.) Where there are signs of persistent racial problems, such as Jim Crow back then, and Hurricane Katrina now, one camp usually advises people of color not to complain too much, to be “quiet” and “unassuming” and to “go slowly.” Supposedly, we hear, this means being like the dead black heroes of a romanticized past–Frederick Douglass with his inner dignity in a segregated train car, Rosa Parks with her small seamstress body and unassuming angelic nonviolence.

One of the most astute people to deconstruct racial hypocrisy was James Baldwin, when he quoted Thurgood Marshall as saying, “They don’t mean go slow.” [11] Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass were not patient, unassuming, meek, or angelic; and only the most perverted logic of historical denial could ever lead us to characterize them as such. They were heroes because they fought, they complained, and they stood strong in the face of entire societies wanting them to shut up or die. Nor, I would contend, were they entirely nonviolent. It is an aggressive act to initiate a boycott and one that knowingly provokes a violent backlash. Douglass’ famous chiasmus that “you have seen how a man became a slave, now you will see how a slave became a man,” occurs, after all, after he physically strikes the white man determined to beat him into submission. Nothing will make me happier than seeing Rosa Parks brought back out of the Capitol Rotunda, where our memories of her can breath again–that is, as long as we can still remember who she really was.

Robert O. Lopez is a frequent contributor to Buffalo Report. He can be reached at:

[1] Live From. Narr. Kyra Phillips. CNN. 31 Oct 2005.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Liberation. 5 Sept 2005.

[4] Powers, Richard Gid. Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover. New York: Free Press, 1987. 482.

[5] Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery (1901). New York: Dover, 1995. 88.

[6] Washington, Booker T. “Signs of Progress Among the Negroes.” Century Magazine 1900. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 31 Oct 2005 .

[7] Washington, Up from Slavery, 47-48.

[8] Ibid., 38.

[9] Ibid., 51-56. Washington notes with indignation, for example, that he visited a home that had “One fork, and a sixty-dollar organ!” (54).

[10] DuBois, W.E.B. Souls of Black Folks (1903). New York: Penguin, 1989. 39-40.

[11] Baldwin, James. “Faulkner and Desegregation.” Collected Essays. Ed. Library of America. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1998. 209.