It is right and good that at this time we should celebrate and honor
the life and legacy of Rosa Parks. Her brave, dignified act of civil disobedience
on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 precipitated a nonviolent protest movement
that awakened our nation to the widespread injustice of discrimination and segregation.
But as we honor Rosa Parks and bid her soul rest, may we also lay to
rest the myths that began to form about her almost immediately after she was
arrested 50 years ago. In the long run, I believe these myths could do more
harm than good to the unfinished struggle for equality in this country.
Perhaps the most damaging myth about Rosa is that she acted alone.
In fact, she worked for years with other social justice and civil rights activists
prior to her famous action. She served as a secretary for and was a
member of her local NAACP chapter. She attended workshops at the Highlander
Folk School in Tennessee to study racial desegregation tactics and Gandhian
resistance methods. While Rosa parks was led from that bus alone, there were
many people behind her when she boarded it. Her decision to refuse to move to
the back of the bus so that a white rider could have her seat was made in the
context of a community.
It is good to remember that, as Parker Palmer has written, even God does not
act alone: “In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus…did not act
alone—and that is the key to his ‘miracle.’ He acted in concert
with others and evoked the abundance of community. Ultimately,” Parker
writes, “the body of Christ, so central to incarnational theology, is
not the physical body of Jesus but the corporate body of those who gather around
the Spirit, wherever it is found.”
Perhaps as Americans we are especially susceptible to the Myth of the Great
One. After all, many of us are descended from mavericks and dissenters. Individualism
and independence are among our primary values as a nation. Surely some of the
blame can be placed at the foot of our modern culture of celebrity.
Myths are not all bad, of course; Joseph Campbell taught us that. One of the
good things about myths is that they help us remember people and events that
should not be forgotten. If we are not careful, however, we can allow myths
to diminish rather than strengthen the impact of an individual’s contribution.
Believing our heroes act alone and appear on the scene as if dropped from heaven
smoothes the way for our canonization—and eventual distortion—of
Often our heroes are cloaked in the myth of infallibility. I used to wince
when reminded of Martin Luther King’s adulterous liaisons, believing they
tragically weakened his message and his legacy. The older I get, however, the
less the man’s indiscretions trouble me (even though I know they were
uncovered in a mean spirited attempt by the FBI to discredit him). In the long
run, the unvarnished truth always tells a more powerful tale and gives more
hope to the rest of us mortals. It is far better to remember King and others
like him as ordinary human beings who did extraordinary things with the help
of other ordinary people.
I suspect this is one reason King David’s dirty deeds were never censored
out of the Bible. Even Jesus’ apparent losses of cool and lapses of faith
survived the cut. Consider that blasted fig tree, the moneychangers he gave
the bums’ rush, the cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have
you forsaken me?”
Of course it would be wrong to assume that misdeeds or character flaws are
a prerequisite for greatness. I doubt Rosa Parks left much dirt behind. If we
are not careful, however, the myths we spin can keep us “in our place”
as effectively as any unjust law or institution. Mythologizing our heroes allows
us to justify timid and half-hearted action or no action at all. These were
one-in-a-million individuals, we tell ourselves. I can’t hope to do the
great things they did, so why try so hard.
The best way to honor the memory of Rosa Parks is not to endlessly polish the
statues, material and figural, erected in her name, lest we risk turning them
into monuments of our own inaction. The greatest tribute we can pay
Rosa Parks is to join, as she did, with others already engaged in the struggle
to bring about a better world for all.
I wear one of those rubber bracelets that are popular right now. This one is
white and bears a single word: ONE. The ONE campaign is an effort to focus the
strengths of many organizations and individuals on the issues of global poverty
and AIDS. The group takes its name from a song by the Irish rock band U2. Like
many of the bands songs, the lyrics of “One” can be interpreted
on several levels. They might be about sharing a life in marriage, sharing a
country, or sharing a world. The overriding, paradoxical message of the song
and of the campaign is one that our founders knew well when they chose for our
national seal the phrase E pluribus Unum and it is one Rosa Parks exemplified:
the power of one rests in numbers.