Yesterday, over on Daily Kos, I wrote about fascism, with little optimism. Today I’m going to write about someone who fought authority in a big way. After she died two years ago, I wrote about Rosa Parks:

I just read tonight that Rosa Parks has died at the age of 92

I’ve always loved the real story behind Rosa Parks, which is a bit different than the one most of us read about in school. The mythology runs that she was a tired lady who just got fed up with having to give up her seats one day.

This isn’t quite how it happened. Rosa Parks was an activist and she knew exactly what she was doing at the time. The bus boycott didn’t just happen spontaneously. It was planned and executed masterfully.

More on Parks, her legacy, and what we, as activists, can learn from it, after the fold.The mythology behind Parks served its purpose at the time. NPR’s “On The Media” did an interview with Tim Tyson about Parks. Here’s a question that was asked as part of that interview, by Bob Garfield:

I’m speaking to you on Wednesday ? the Washington Post, in its appreciation of Rosa Parks, referred very much to her as a seamstress and very little to her as an activist. It did nothing to squelch the myth that she was just one woman who, on a certain day, had had enough.

Tyson’s response is instructive:

I think for some reason we are unwilling to honor people who are politically active. We want to honor people who just have had enough and sort of spontaneously won’t take it any more. But somehow if they get categorized as active citizens, which would be a positive way of saying it, as troublemakers… then somehow it becomes self-serving, part of a movement which we’re less comfortable with… it started very quickly after the bus boycott. And they talked about her tired feet. That gets mentioned a lot more often than it should. She may have been a little bit tired, but that had nothing to do with the decision that she made.

So here’s the thing: nothing in the narrative is wrong exactly. She was a seamstress. She was tired. But she was smart, articulate, and really knew what the hell she was doing. I like to use this as an example because it wasn’t just about doing the right thing. It was about doing the right thing in a really smart way.

As activists, we have an obligation to push, and we’re often at odds with those who are more mainstream. Barney Frank opposed the activist San Francisco same-sex marriages a few years back, saying it was merely a symbolic diversion. Nancy Pelosi complained that she couldn’t arrest the anti-war protesters who have been dogging her.

Time and time again, activists and mainstream politicians create these divisions between themselves which don’t reach a solution, and part of the reason for this is because we’re a culture that has convinced itself that activism is selfish.

The reason Rosa Parks is portrayed as a tired lady who just got fed up is because, as a culture, we’re afraid of acknowledging what she really was: a powerful woman who had used what wits she had to take control over her situation against overwhelming odds.

She didn’t do it alone, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott had been planned for some time before, but the organizers of the boycott were really smart about it, too. As Tyson notes:

Within a year, there had been a couple of cases of black women arrested on the buses who they almost had a boycott around, but who weren’t just right in one way or another. And so they were sort of waiting for this case… When she [Parks] got arrested, the word went forth and people in the community knew what would happen.

They waited for the right case and were patient and prepared and ready to go.

Can you imagine what could happen if we had a highly organized and coordinated opposition movement which would be ready to start flooding the media with letters to the editor whenever some boneheaded Republican would say that Iraq was worth the deaths of thousand of American troops? Can you imagine what would happen if, today, we had people writing letters to every news organization that didn’t bother with this story?

Can you imagine what would happen if instead of just being outraged and frustrated we were outraged, frustrated, and extremely well coordinated?

Can you imagine what could happen if we were to transform the public dialogue and make activism something to be proud of? Can you imagine what would happen if we told people far and wide that not only should the admire Rosa Parks for standing up for herself, but for doing so with eyes open, knowing that she was risking arrest in doing so?

I’m an activist and I’ve been an activist for most of my adult life, but I don’t tell many people this because I know that it might make them uncomfortable. I need to get past this and say screw it; activism is good and we’re doing this because it’s good for the damned country.

Take this with you throughout the day: be proud of your activism and support other activists. Don’t be afraid of what people will think of you for it. Speak your mind, but see if you can find other like minded people to help, because this isn’t fun to do alone. Parks strength came from her courage, but it also came from her allies and her willingness to sacrifice herself for a greater good.

What are you going to do today that connects with other people?

What are you going to give up today that makes the world a better place?



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