Today, December 1, 2005, marks the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus to a white man. Her act of civil disobedience became the catalyst for the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, a momentous mass action against the repressive racial segregation in the US south. For 381 days, tens of thousands of black citizens boycotted the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama, relying on carpools or, mostly, walking many miles to get back and forth to work. The boycott did not end until segregation on buses was found to be unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.
In many cities in the US today, public transport systems are marking the anniversary in tribute to Rosa Parks. For example, in New York City, a seat on every bus will be left empty, under a picture of Rosa Parks, and buses will keep their headlights on all day.
Rosa Parks has become a well-known symbol of the American Civil Rights Movement. However, with the passage of time, the common perception in the US -- and media reports, in particular -- of Ms. Parks and her actions have tended to rely on the same characterizations over and over: Ms. Parks as a quiet, unassuming woman who one day just quietly decided she'd had enough. As writer Robert Oscar Lopez notes in an essay entitled Saving Rosa Parks from American Hypocrisy (published just after Ms. Parks' death last month), this characterization -- however seemingly innocuous on its face -- does a dangerous disservice to Ms. Parks' legacy. Casting her as the quiet, modest heroine of the civil rights drama allows commentators to discredit those engaged in supposedly more vocal, strident opposition to racism and discrimination as "militants" making unreasonable demands on society and its power structure.
This characterization of Ms. Parks also threatens to blunt the true nature of her protest. By refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks was being confrontantional, provocative, transgressive, defiant; she was resisting and challenging oppression, and above all, fighting back.
There is nothing "quiet" about that.