Column: Remembering the real Rosa

By Craig Colbrook

I came home Monday night to the news that Rosa Parks was dead. I didn’t really know what to think at the time. It was, of course, a tragedy, but I never really knew much about her. Losing her was like losing an uncle I’d never met. I had no emotional connection to her, but I was still sad that she’s gone. So I did some reading, and I came to the realization that most of us, even though we’d grown up reading about her, didn’t really know her.

We’re all familiar with the myth, of course. Rosa Parks was a common seamstress, we’ve been told. On Dec. 1, 1955, she got on a bus to head home after work. She was tired. So when the bus driver told her she would have to move to the back of the bus, she refused. She got arrested for that, but she also provided a crucial spark of life for the civil rights movement.

It’s a powerful story, but the truth is always a little more complicated. As Aldon Morris noted in his book “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement,” there was an active civil rights movement before Rosa’s bus ride, and Rosa was a part of it. When she took that ride, she’d been serving as secretary of her local NAACP for over a decade. She’d also refused to observe the bus segregation laws many times, and had even been kicked off the buses before.

Some people may hear this and think that Rosa was no simple victim. She knew what would happen if she refused to move, and she was a member of a group with an aggressive set of goals. She was courting the issue. She was grandstanding. She wanted the controversy. She was simply pushing her agenda.

That viewpoint is nonsense, though. Her time in the NAACP just proved that she had seen injustice long before she got on that bus, and worked hard to change it. I’m sure she wasn’t looking for a fight – no one goes out looking to be discriminated against. But when it did happen to her, she saw a way to stand up not just for herself, but for an entire group of people.

If she knew what the consequences were, then that just makes her all the more courageous, since those consequences had included arrests and even deaths for people who defied the laws before her. She was still the victim of an unjust and ridiculous system, she just knew it beforehand.

And anyway, she had to make a scene. But she shouldn’t have had to. A professor of mine said rights aren’t rights if you have to ask for them, and I’m sure the same thing applies to making a scene for them. But that was the way things were back then.

She needed to do something drastic to keep her rights, and the NAACP needed a dynamic issue to pin their movement on. So she did what she had to, what she’d done many times before. Only this time, a lot of other people stood up as she stayed seated.

I suppose this story isn’t as clear cut as the myth. But the truth is important, because it demonstrates that events don’t always fall into place. Sometimes, it takes dedicated people and a whole lot of time and effort to change things. The value of those people should not be overlooked in favor of a myth about them.

I’m sure that that lesson could be applied to a lot of the issues we face today, everything from the war in Iraq, to the separation of church and state, to the Chief debate. But let’s not do that today. Let’s not get into what Rosa would have thought about this or that. For today, let us just appreciate what she did say when she was with us, and thank her for what she did.

Craig Colbrook is senior in Communications. His column appears every Friday. He can be reached at [email protected]