God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen - Jars of Clay - listen now

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Rosa Parks has died at the age of 92. She was a courageous American who refused her status as a second class citizen. In so doing she helped America become a "more perfect union." But it is important that we honor her by remembering her story accurately and in context. It is no less poignant and powerful by doing so. Ms. Parks did not simply make a sudden, life changing decision one day on a bus in Montgomery. She worked hard for equality and civil rights, and her decision to stay in the seat was carefully considered and deliberate.

Paul Rogat Loeb wrote an excellent tribute to Rosa Parks after meeting her during an interview on CNN several years ago: The Real Rosa Parks. Mr. Loeb reminds us that one of the most imporant things that Ms. Parks gave us is the sense that we too can make a difference, and that is a very important gift indeed. Remember that a real hero isn't usually the grand figure calling attention to him or her self - leading marches and visiting heads of state or camping out in ditches, but rather the quiet person sitting next to you on the bus.


People like Parks shape our models of social commitment. Yet the conventional retelling of her story creates a standard so impossible to meet, it may actually make it harder for us to get involved. This portrayal suggests that social activists come out of nowhere, to suddenly take dramatic stands. It implies that we act with the greatest impact when we act alone, or at least when we act alone initially. It reinforces a notion that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least an effective one, has to be a larger-than- life figure—someone with more time, energy, courage, vision, or knowledge than any normal person could ever possess. This belief pervades our society, in part because the media tends not to represent historical change as the work of ordinary human beings, which it almost always is.

Once we enshrine our heroes on pedestals, it becomes hard for mere mortals to measure up in our eyes. However individuals speak out, we’re tempted to dismiss their motives, knowledge, and tactics as insufficiently grand or heroic. We fault them for not being in command of every fact and figure, or being able to answer every question put to them. We fault ourselves as well, for not knowing every detail, or for harboring uncertainties and doubts. We find it hard to imagine that ordinary human beings with ordinary flaws might make a critical difference in worthy social causes. Yet those who act have their own imperfections, and ample reasons to hold back. I think it does us all a disservice, says a young African-American activist in Atlanta named Sonya Tinsley, when people who work for social change are presented as saints—so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light. But I’m much more inspired learning how people succeeded despite their failings and uncertainties. It’s a much less intimidating image. It makes me feel like I have a shot at changing things too.


Ridor 10/25/2005 09:52:00 PM  

Speak for yourself -- you do not support Americans with Disabilities Act -- screw your ass as usual -- this is the reason why I never cared for your comments because your words are all just rubbish.


Kevin 10/25/2005 10:08:00 PM  

Can I ask just what the hell Rosa Parks has to do with the Americans With Disabilities Act and where you got the idea that I don't support it? Nutcase.

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