This week marks what would have been civil rights activist Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday. While this centennial and Black History Month will understandably spur remembrances of her important life and work, I also hope it will serve as an opportunity for a new generation to learn about the real Rosa Parks and not the myth contained in many books.
As the legend goes, a quiet Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress with a single act of defiance challenged segregation and ushered in the modern civil rights movement. The problem with this sanitized and sugarcoated story is that it diminishes the full breath of Parks’ legacy and activism.
Parks’ fateful day in December of 1955 was hardly an isolated act of an exhausted woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus because her feet hurt. In fact, Parks had been thrown off the bus a decade earlier by the same bus driver. She had avoided that driver’s bus for twelve years because she understood the risks of angering drivers, all of whom were white and carried weapons. However, this was not Parks’ first act of defiance. In fact, she was a committed life-long activist and a more complete understanding of Parks’ life provides a different reason to honor her.
Parks’ career began in the 1940s and 1950s organizing and agitating for civil rights in relative obscurity. She was among a small group who wanted to make the Montgomery branch of the NAACP more active. She jumped into the trenches working for black-voter registration, school desegregation, and documenting racist brutality. The summer before her bus stand, she attended a two-week interracial workshop to train and organize for the implementation of school desegregation. It was grass roots activism at its finest and most effective form.
While Parks escaped any physical harm for her bus stand, it led to significant economic and personal hardships. Following the incident, both Parks and her husband lost their jobs. Facing the inability to find employment, poor health and persistent death threats, she moved to Detroit. There, she was relentless in combating racism in broader society. The scene changed but not her focus: end the scourge of racism in America.
Throughout her life, Parks continued to stress the need for racial equality and opportunity, political empowerment, and remembrance of black history. That lifetime of steadfastness and bravery against racism and segregation left our society far more tolerant and racially equal. That is what deserves national veneration.
Like most Parks admirers, I believe that her work remains unfinished, although my rational is likely very different. I believe the biggest contemporary civil rights challenges facing African Americans are access to economic and educational opportunity.
While black Americans have traditionally struggled economically, the Obama economy has been especially harsh. Last month’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report stated that the unemployment rate for black Americans now stands at a staggering 13.8%, including 25% of workers who have been unemployed for longer than 99 weeks. Additionally, 27% of black Americans now live in poverty; a 2% increase since 2009. 26.4% of households who report receiving food stamp assistance are African American, despite the fact that black Americans constitute just 13% of the total population.
Were this not bad enough there are troubling signs for the future. High school graduation rates, which strongly influence income and employment, continue to vary widely by race. A recent John Hopkins University study found the following among high school graduation rates: 91.8% of Asian students, 82% of whites, 65.9% of Hispanic students, and 63.5% of African Americans.
While there are no easy solutions to address these challenges, the great economist and political philosopher Thomas Sowell has established that government promotion of an entitlement culture, expansion of the welfare state, and opposition to school choice have exacerbated the struggles of African Americans and hurt their ability to achieve equal opportunity. While Rosa Parks was an unapologetic liberal who certainly would have celebrated the election of Barack Obama, she also believed that sometimes old challenges require new approaches. Economic liberalism has failed our nations African Americans and it is time to reassess and craft effective solutions.
I hope that Parks’ centennial produces not only a better understanding of her real legacy but also a substantive discussion about the work that remains to achieve equal opportunity for all Americans in every facet of American society.