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Rinku Sen

Rosa Parks and Ella Baker

Now that the funeral is over, I can say how much the press coverage and political posturing around Rosa Parks' death has pissed me off. I first reacted to her passing as an anticipated marker, a note in the inevitable loss of civil-rights era figures. Then I was surprised that her body was on display at the Rotunda, and angry to see George W. Bush and Bill Frist dropping the first flowers. I'm less upset that they claim her as part of their own history than that they use her as an ongoing symbol of American individualism, the rugged kind that did away with racism fifty years ago.

Although Mrs. Parks was part of a larger movement long before 1953, the role she is assigned in the popular imagination as "the spark for the Montgomery Bus Boycott" and the "mother of the civil rights movement," strikes me as the kind of hyperbole that hides the hard work of building a movement, the stress of working daily with other people over many years to transform a society. It's the Horatio Alger twist applied to civil rights. Frankly, my thoughts quickly turned to the fact that Mrs. Parks, supported by the civil rights establishment, actually sued the enormously popular OutKast (unsuccessfully) for using her name in a way that wasn't properly deferential to her image.

In a New York Times article about how today's black leaders view the passing of the older generation, Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights (, said that our elders had failed to develop next generations of leaders. Jones obviously knows that Baker herself was the best model for nurturing activism, the radical kind that wants to be in movement with, rather than in control of, young people. Barbara Ransby, Baker's biographer (Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, University of North Carolina Press) writes that, "Ella Baker was a movement teacher who exemplified a radical pedagogy... She sought to empower those she taught and regarded learning as reciprocal." Projecting the actions of the dead is an exercise in self-indulgence, but here I go. Ella Baker would have regarded OutKast with interest, and wondered how to connect their partying braggadacio to political courage. She was a modern woman, looking forward rather than nostalgically back. When she passed on, the nation barely took notice, but we can't afford to forget her if we want to continue the fight against racism.

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Posted at 10:14 AM, Nov 03, 2005 in Civil Rights | Rosa Parks
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