The late Rosa Parks has been called the matriarch of the civil rights movement. Her cool defiance on December 1, 1955, has served as the highest example in the fight for equality in our country. However, Rosa Parks? refusal to relinquish her bus seat is not what makes her deserving of the acclaim she has received.
We make a bad habit of perceiving things simply ? it?s just easier than trying to get at the nuances. But the cost of this mental laziness is real. Just as many of us simplify the significance of Rosa Parks, we tend to simplify and ? even worse ? downplay the continuing challenges of prejudice.
Rosa Parks was by no means the first to defy a bus driver?s commands. In March of 1955, a fifteen-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin had refused to change seats at the driver?s order, and was arrested. Black activists met with Colvin to evaluate if she could serve as a good test case and to see if she would give the right impression in a fight of unprecedented magnitude. The young Colvin was pregnant and unmarried. Rosa Parks, as secretary of the local NAACP chapter, was at the meeting when activists decided to wait for a better opportunity.
Again, in October, a woman named Mary Louise Smith disobeyed an order to change seats, and again NAACP leaders chose to wait for a more ?upstanding? example.
When Rosa Parks was asked to move to the back of the bus, leaders decided the time was right. She had a steady job; she was married; and, more importantly, she had a ?quiet fortitude as well as political savvy,? in the words of Rita Dove, former U.S. poet laureate. They organized around her instantly. So began the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott.
It was not Parks? act of protest alone that transformed her into an indelible icon; it was the way she presented herself as an equal human at a time when most whites saw her solely as just another black.
Not only do too many people misunderstand Rosa Parks? precise role in the civil rights movement, many people today treat the civil rights movement as something that is complete, its job done. That perception is patently false.
At the age of 89, Parks said in an interview, ?It pains me that there is still a lot of Klan activity and racism. I think when you say you?re happy, [then] you have everything that you need and everything that you want, and nothing more to wish for. I haven?t reached that stage yet.?
Discrimination is as much an issue now as it has ever been, and it is present with us at Carnegie Mellon University. In each of the past two years, we witnessed explosive flare-ups of racial tension. Each time, amends were made and people moved on. But the problem remains: there has been little change in the cultural climate of the University.
We need to realize that while, technically, the civil rights movement is over, things are not as they should be. Racism is still rampant in our country, and Pennsylvania houses the highest concentration of Ku Klux Klan members in the nation. And as close to home as our own campus, there still exists unspoken racial tension in our community.
We should respect Rosa Parks for her contribution to history, but acknowledge that her idolization overshadows the persisting cultural divide. Let?s mourn her death, but take her actions in life as a stepping stone rather than an end point.