The Rosa Parks Lone Rider Theory

Rosa Parks photographed after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, posed with newspaper reporter“Rosa Parks did so act on her own!” I’m faced with this repudiation yet again, as J’s high school class revisits the civil rights movement. Their reading list includes Howard Zinn, but still the lesson plan is determined to press home the Parks as lone rider theory.

It makes a heroic story, to tell of lone brave Parks (she’s even painted as elderly, are you kidding me?), riding home from a tiring day at work, so tired that she becomes tired of being told to go to the back of the bus. She stands her ground, an example to us all, and changes history.

Yes it is inspiring, yes it feels empowering. But IS it empowering? Does it empower you to stand up to injustice in the face of harsh, legal if also physical, consequence? Have you yet? You’re no Rosa Parks I could confidently guess, and it’s not your fault.

Do you doubt that there haven’t been countless upstarts, individuals railing against repressive authority, who’ve spoken their piece, made their gesture, only to be humbled by arrest, jail, judges, fines, and the ridicule of the community? It happens all the time. They are marginalized, broken, and ultimately worn down.

Let me describe another kind of heroism. Working for civil rights activists as a stenographer, being in on the discussions about who would make the strongest test case, and picking the right moment mindful of the preparations needed to mobilize colleagues to rally to your defense; thus committing your act of civil disobedience with ready support. Is that any less heroic? I’d suggest it takes more bravery because you know you are launching a political act that will have legs. And it will require more from you than just anger or being tired.

Cindy Sheehan didn’t just march down to Crawford Texas and pitch her lone tent. She consulted with an incredible network of organizers to conceive the plan, Code Pink maven Medea Benjamin among them

Rosa Parks and the bus she rode in on launched a key maneuver for the civil rights movement, and that’s certainly not a lesson the establishment wants to teach its children. Teach them that history is made by individuals, unique, gifted iconoclasts, with whom you’d have to have delusions of grandeur to identify. “You Sir, are no Kennedy,” or Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks. It’s the monarchist belief that only special people are endowed to rule. No need for commoners to concern themselves, the aptitude for nobility is hereditary.

Don’t teach children that to change anything you have to take on the establishment with its own weapons. Idealistic youth don’t want to hear that you have to fight politicians with politics.

You don’t have to become the system to defeat it, but you have to inhabit the system and understand that it operates with the mechanisms of human nature. You must play the system, and no one, absolutely no one, has ever done it alone. Not even Eve.

Was Rosa Parks an iPod-wearing  rebel-without-a-cause? Not hardly.

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Eric Verlo

About Eric Verlo

On sabbatical
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