It’s sixty years since Rosa Parks, a key figure of the American civil rights movement, made the seemingly simple act of refusing to give up her seat on a bus. It remains a standout moment in American history: a peaceful black woman, tired after a long day at work, being asked to give up her seat for a white man, and simply deciding that she shouldn’t have to. It was not a premeditated decision, but rather a sudden realisation, and one which once made, the whole world began to agree with.
Or so the romanticised story goes. The reality of it was quite different.
The first misconception comes with the idea that this was Rosa Parks’ first attempt at standing up to racial segregation. Parks had actually been discussing the oppression around her since her youth. In her own words: “I talked and talked of everything I know about the white man’s inhuman treatment of the negro.” She was active in her protests throughout this time, to the extent that she was one of many protestors considered unstable and even dangerous. Her radicalism never weakened, even after the civil rights movement ended. Personal papers of hers which remain include her testimonial for a fellow activist, which claims “Freedom fighters never retire,” and a paper bag she doodled on as late as the 1990s, which reads: “The Struggle Continues…. The Struggle Continues…. The Struggle Continues.”
Furthermore, the historic encounter on the bus was not even Parks’ first interaction with this particular bus driver. 12 years earlier, a conflict ensued when the driver insisted she exit the bus and re-enter at the back entrance, so that she might sit in the area designated for black passengers. Although the confrontation ended on something of an agreement, with Parks conceding, “I will get off…. (But) You better not hit me,” Parks naturally avoided the driver thereafter, though seemed not to notice him on the famous day years later.
There is a similar problem, perhaps, in Northern Ireland, where history is also put into individual images, held up, immortalised and glorified as literal paintings and song lyrics.
With this history considered, why does our treatment of Rosa Parks revolve only around one famous moment? The answer is probably simple human nature. We love a story, prefer an image we can cling to and romanticise, rather than a movement or a life of protest and all the work, disappointment, blood sweat and tears that comes with it. Those things are not as grand, not as heroic as one powerful image. They carry too much struggle; they are too human and not enough superhero.
Yet the truer story does nothing to lessen her legacy. In fact it enhances it. She was not weak, tired from work, and unable to stand up; rather stand up is exactly what she did, and it was the culmination of the work she had done before. The difference in the two versions is that they confuse affect and effect; turn an action that was a result of a building movement into something which created a movement. Yes, Rosa Parks’ stance on that bus was an improvised one, but it was nothing new for her or the black community as a whole. This truer version is better. It shows her actions as harder earned and done with conviction, not on a whim.
There is a similar problem, perhaps, in Northern Ireland, where history is also put into individual images. The last century is littered with iconic historical moments, and when these moments are held up, immortalised and glorified as literal paintings and song lyrics, they become either propaganda or incitement, depending on what they are and who they’re aimed at. But these moments, just like the story of Rosa Parks on the bus in 1955, are part of history as a whole, and should be viewed accordingly. When they are taken out of their historical context and viewed on their own, they tell a tale, but one that can be manipulated, and will never show the full story.