What Would Rosa Parks Say (WWRPS)?

The temptation to comment on the violence in Ferguson is almost irresistible. It doesn’t matter if we’re condemning it, worrying about it, lamenting it. We feel the need to say something about it while commenting on Ferguson’s resistance.

Most of us should resist this temptation mightily.

When Detroit burned in 1967, “the mother of the movement,” Rosa Parks had this to say.

“Regardless of whether or not any one person may know what to do about segregation and oppression, it’s better to protest than to accept injustice.”

You know what she said when asked about the right to self-defense in 1964?

“I’m in favor of any move to show we are dissatisfied.”

The right to self-defense from the mother of the movement that turned the other cheek? Support for Detroit citizens breaking glass and setting buildings on fire, giving up on non-violent resistance?

Well, yes in fact.

Despite the ways we remember her, Parks’ views put her much closer to Malcolm X than to Martin Luther King.

Parks felt despair about the rebellions and fires in Detroit. But her despair had nothing to do with condemnation of those resisting. She despaired the rebellions harmed Black neighborhoods and businesses more than succeeded in reigning in white violence. She despaired the reality that the chokehold of white supremacy remained so tight (and the efficacy of nonviolent resistance so incomplete) that this kind of protest seemed to African American communities all that remained available to them.

But she didn’t despair about what the resisting represented: she affirmed a defiant assertion of Black humanity.

Parks didn’t advocate violence and fires. But she was clear that violence and fires were better than not responding at all. She was clear that sometimes these might, when every other attempt had failed, be the only way to hold on to one’s own sense of humanity.

It was for these same reasons she believed strongly in the right to self-defense.

“Regardless of whether or not any one person may know what to do about segregation and oppression, it’s better to protest than to accept injustice.”

This is, of course, a different Rosa Parks than the more myth-than-reality Parks. The Parks we’ve long-held captive in one frozen dimension in our national memory—still sitting on a bus. This is the Rosa Parks who remained active in Black nationalist movements well into the 1970s.

If anybody had the right to comment on the nature of resistance—violent, non-violent or otherwise—it was Rosa Parks. And she would not have condemned what’s happening in Ferguson (among African Americans) anymore than she did in Detroit. If a white police force has a chokehold on you, you must assert your right to be free.

So, let us be wary of how easy it is in this moment, even for the justice lovers among us, to somehow turn the civil rights movement legacy of non-violence against the women and men of Ferguson who are fighting for their freedom and declaring their humanity.

I don’t want anyone else to die in Ferguson. But how can I, or most of us (there may be a few who have earned the right) dare say more about Ferguson than Parks would.

I can’t.

My job right now is to listen.

And this is what I hear:

“. . . [I]t’s better to protest than to accept injustice.”

Any move to show we are dissatisfied.”

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