Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Mythos of the Power of the Individual

Rosa Parks died on Monday at the age of 92. She has been labeled in the history books as the mother of the civil rights movement through her simple act of defiance--refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.

Listening to Democracy Now on WRPI yesterday, I learned a few interesting tidbits about Parks. The first was that it's a popular misconception that the reason Parks didn't give up her seat was because her feet were tired, and she didn't feel like standing. Parks herself worked hard to conteract that myth in her retellings of that fateful day. She refused to give up her seat, as required by the Jim Crow laws, because she no longer wished to be a second class citizen to white people. She was an active member in the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and her defiance in giving up her seat was activism.

I also learned that two black women in prior incidences had also refused to give up their seats on buses when demanded they do so by whites. These women are not in the history books, because they didn't get arrested. The critical ingredient in Ms. Parks' defiance is that she was arrested and fined $14.00 for her disobedience.

Of course, the incident might not have made anyone notice, except a 26 year old Reverand named Martin Luther King, Jr. urged a boycott of the buses when Ms. Parks was arrested, and that propelled her act of defiance onto the national stage.

Now, I don't want to be misread as saying that what Ms. Parks did was unworthy of the attention she received. She does deserve to be named and identified as an essential figure in the civil rights movement.

What I want to highlight is how many other people likely were doing similar acts as Ms. Park, small acts of disobedience in the face of injustice, but who have not become part of our national mythos. I also want to highlight how it wasn't Ms. Parks alone, but people leading up to and afterwards, that launched the first stage of the movement for civil rights for blacks in the United States.

Humans are creatures of narrative; that is, we need and create stories to make sense of our realities. Stories have main characters usually with vast agency to influence their surroundings. The story of Rosa Parks is a compelling narrative; it gives us a key actor that helped launch the civil rights movement.

Perhaps, we cannot make sense of cultural changes without such narratives. Without a Ms. Parks to serve as our protagonist in the story of injustice, we would not recognize the beginning of the civil rights movement. We would not know that change was occurring.

A recent protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your position) Cindy Sheehan is another case in point. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq there have been U.S. citizens against the war. Yet, the tale we are now telling about the anti-war movement starts with Sheehan's protest at President Bush's Texas ranch.

In order for a movement to be recognized as existing, we need an individual to mark its beginning. This effectively eviscerates the the collective group that gave rise to the individual moment. Parks likely would not have refused her bus seat if she hadn't joined a group, the NAACP, that was raising awareness of injustice, urging people to become agents of change rather than agents of the same. Similarly, Sheehan likely would not have camped out at Bush's "ranch" if she hadn't been encouraged and supported by other people against the war, to help mobilize her to camp out in the Texas sun.

The myth in this culture is that single individuals can do momentous things. They do, but only when they are made aware by others that there is a need for change, and are supported in helping to make that change by joining with others for a common goal.

Our "rugged individualism" is a myth that hides the critical importance of the collective for change.

1 comment:

Rod Carveth said...

It's a bit of the same with Homer Plessy, of Plessy v. Ferguson fame. Plessy's arrest was a set-up -- he was picked to challenge the LA railroad law because he was a Creole who descended from both European and African parents. Thus, he was light-skinned enough to "pass" as a white and sit in the white section, but dark-skinned enough to be arrested when he pointed out that he was a black sitting in the white section. Behind Plessy were a group of lawyers wanting to challenge the law. Unfortunately, what resulted was the "separate, but equal" doctrine.