Social & Domestic Issues

Rosa Parks’ Real Legacy: She Taught Us Responsibility

On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks dug in her heels, refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Her subsequent arrest and imprisonment inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to lead a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. Thusly, the civil rights movement in this country was borne. Mrs. Parks passed away at age 92 on October 24. There were three funerals held in her honor—in Detroit, Washington, and Alabama. The Detroit services lasted seven hours and attracted 4,000 mourners. A diverse group of national leaders praised Park’s legacy:

“The world knows of Rosa Parks because of a single, simple act of dignity and courage that struck a lethal blow to the foundations of legal bigotry,” said former President Clinton.

“The world knows of Rosa Parks because of a single, simple act of dignity and courage that struck a lethal blow to the foundations of legal bigotry,” said former President Clinton.

“The public must vote in every election to protect such things as affirmative action,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

“Jim Crow isn’t dead yet but when Jim Crow’s finally dead, one of the hands that would’ve done it in will be our wonderful friend Rosa Parks,” proclaimed U.S. Rep. John Dingell.

“She formed the rock on which we now stand.” said Philip Robert Cousin, a senior bishop of the AME Church .

But maybe it was Rosa Parks herself who offered the best perspective. “Don’t let it end with me,” she often said.

But maybe it was Rosa Parks herself who offered the best perspective. “Don’t let it end with me,” she often said.

Well, the movement hasn’t ended. But maybe it is time for it to change. This is perhaps the one point that was missed in the hundreds of eulogies for Ms. Parks last week. No one observed that we are no longer victims of our skin color. Everyone talked about Park’s struggle to get a seat at the table. No one talked about owning the table. People recalled the anthem of the civil rights movement: we shall overcome. But no one dared suggest that we have overcome. But look around. We can sit where we want now. We have choices. Our concerns have become the concerns of mainstream society.

Does this mean that blacks do not face barriers to success in this country? Of course not. For example, there is an alarming disparity in graduation rates between white students and minority students. According to a recent report conducted by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and the Urban Institute, only 50 percent of Black students graduated in 2001. By contrast, 75% of white students obtained their high school diplomas that year. 

Just as bad is the disintegration of the black family unit. Seventy percent of black babies are born to unmarried parents. Abuse and neglect follow. One national study reported that “severe parent-to-child violence was 114 percent greater in black families than in white families.” Many children in abusive households go on to become violent abusers themselves. Countless others will simply never learn how to be responsible, loving parents. The cycle of abuse and neglect will sew child welfare and self esteem issues into an entire generation of black Americans.    

Family and education are the bedrock of our lives. We can’t ignore it when these areas are in crisis. But no longer can we just blame white people for these problems. It is no longer the case that society refuses to grant blacks the basic rights that we associate with happiness.

The civil rights movement allowed us to push into mainstream society. If we are to build on this progress—if we are to keep the civil rights movement alive—we must now focus on moving beyond the basic tenets of liberalism. We must get out of the mindset that the government must provide for us. We must shed the notions of victimhood. The real legacy of Rosa Parks is that she put us in a position to take responsibility for ourselves. 

Sadly, the debate about the racial economic and educational gap is almost never framed that way. Unable or unwilling to face our own self inflicted wounds, we tend to rationalize the behavior of street thugs and excuse our own shortcomings as the result of racism. Instead of talking about what we need to do for ourselves, we spend too much time talking about what white people are doing to us. This creates a culture of victimization. Young black children try to be what society tells them they ought to be. If they are told they are victims, that victimhood is part of what it means to be black, they will ingrain the idea into their self concept. They will fail in school, because testing well is something white people do. But if we actively converge around the ideas of individual striving and personal responsibility, then maybe we can supplant the pressure black children feel to underachieve academically with a positive peer pressure to succeed. 

This is the real challenge that Rosa Parks set before us.  It was not just about refusing to get up from her bus seat. It was about the future. It was about reminding us that it is now up to us to overcome. This is how future generations will keep the movement alive.


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