the Disillusioned kid: Sit Down
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Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Sit Down

Famed civil rights activist Rosa Parks passed away yesterday at the age of 92. Parks became famous throughout the world after her legendary refusal to give up her seat on the bus for a white person, a "crime" which saw here arrested and charged. Her resistance, insignificant as it might have seemed at the time, served as the trigger for the Montgomery Bus Boycott and propelled the civil rights movement into the national arena.

It is important while recognising Parks' courage and the importance of her act that we not allow her to become a mythical figure; somehow separated from other lesser mortals. Parks herself would no doubt have agreed with this and spent much of her life seeking to dispel the myths which surrounded her refusal.

Parks is often depicted as a lone opponent of southern racism. She was, however, a veteran of anti-racist organising. Parks' family had a heritage of challenging racism which could be traced through her mother to her grandfater. Rosa and her husband Raymond had both been involved in the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), where she set up the youth council, since the early 40's. When the Alabama chapter of the NAACP was formed she became its first secretary, a position which brought her into contact with many other campaigners. Among them were labour leader A Philip Randolph, who led a march of 50,000 against unfair government and war industry emloyment practices; Ella Barker who would later go on to be involved in the formation of the Student Non-Violent/National Coordinating Committee (SNCC, the meaning of the N shifted in the late 60s with the emergence of the Black Power movements). Just six months prior to her arrest she attended the Highlander Folk School (latterly the Highlander Research and and Education Center) an institution for the trainning of grassroots campaigners.

The idea of a boycott had been bandied around for some time and had got of to a number of abortive starts. Other possible candidates to launch a legal challenge to the segregation laws had been rejected as unsuitable. A fifteen-year old thrown off a bus, was shunned, for instance, after it had emerged she was preganant. Parks, however, was a mature, married woman and hence respectable. After being arrested, Parks consulted with her husband and mother before deciding that her "crime" would serve as the test case. Organisation for the boycott began immediately and the rest, as they say, is history.

As I say, none of this contextualisation detracts from Parks' very real bravery. Rather I want to emphasise that she was not acting in a political vacuum. Individuals ranting against the system (familiar, no?) rarely, if ever, change anything. Real change is brought about by movements, which bring people together around a common cause, providing support networks for activists and ensuring activity is sustainable. Within such movements, even apparently spontaneous actions are in fact connected to others by a complex network of often obscured relationships (theory heads describe this sort of thing with terms like rhizome). Our leaders would not doubt like us to be unaware of all of this and to wallow in our individual powerlesness. Stop wallowing and get organised.

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