A civil matter

The body of Rosa Parks, showered with encomiums, goes this week to its eternal rest after a life well lived. We saw the press explode in a celebration of that life, recounting Parks’ moment of courage when she “stood up by sitting down.” Or, more accurately, stayed seated. Or, more to the point, stayed seated until she was hauled out by the cops for her act of civil disobedience.

Mrs. Parks deserved to be honored. Her brave act threw her family into turmoil, left her poorer, and precipitated her move to this city, where she eked out a quiet, modest life. She deserved, in death, to have her serene smile plastered across the front pages.

And yet, this feast of eulogy lacked the spice of rebellion. Where was the spirit of defiance? Don’t let that sweet, neighbor-lady smile fool you: Mrs. Parks’ great achievement was an act of passive resistance. She stood up to the law, using civil disobedience to fight injustice, refusing what was then a legal order.

Her placid mien was a perfect fit for civil disobedience, that powerful tool in a scrawny package. Civil disobedience seems to work best when you’re a few pounds light or a few inches short. At least the memorable practitioners of the art have tended to be meek, gentle people. Rosa Parks was a small, slight woman. Gandhi was gaunt and kind-faced. Old Thoreau was a skinny Yankee. Such frail figures are likely helpful when daring the authorities to resort to force, even if it ends in a blur of billy clubs.

Even its name misleads. Civil disobedience is “civil” in the political, not the polite, sense — though its reputation may benefit from the conflation. And haven’t the most effective resisters been mostly, well, civil? Decorous? Graceful even when being led away by the law?

But to focus on the grace and dignity is to miss the struggle. Amid all the rejoicing over Rosa Parks the person, there was little to inspire others to emulate her example. She was presented as a symbol for “people facing injustice,” not for people fighting injustice. Where was the sentiment that freedom isn’t peddled or granted to you, but that freedom is something you take, prizing it away from power and declaring it your own?

That’s the essence of Mrs. Parks’ defining moment. If a celebration of defiance was present in this coverage of her, it was hard to detect.

Maybe it’s for the best. Civil disobedience is a hard job. Most people who resist authority don’t get anointed as heroes; they get tarred as troublemakers. They are the “difficult” people who don’t go with the flow.

Yes, every so often they do get celebrated as the great pot-stirrers that keep society’s beans from burning, but most of them are arrested and imprisoned, and many sit today, effectively political prisoners, in our jails. Where are our idealistic newspapermen, knees knocking with excitement, going reverently to the penitentiary to take down their stories? Would they praise those who go beyond “honoring” Mrs. Parks and cross over into emulating her example?

Mostly they don’t, because it isn’t news. If a person ever prevails against authority, then it’s news. But a press that’s cozy with authority will, over time, turn “people power” into a platitude. (Certainly, when George W. Bush and Maya Angelou agree on something, it has descended to platitude.)

And so a great opportunity to inspire rebellion against injustice was missed. But, before Rosa Parks departs to that great Black History Month in the sky, let’s take a moment to recall that, sometimes, “difficult” people make the difference.

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About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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