There were two defining moments in Rosa Parks' life. One was monumental and heroic, and the world honors and cherishes her for it. That, of course, was her refusal to budge from her seat in the white section of a Montgomery bus in 1955. The other moment was tragic, a day in 1994 when a drugged-out young black man beat her in her Detroit home and stole $53.
The two incidents, 40 years apart, tell much about the forward and backward march of racial progress in America. Parks' courageous and long-overdue act staked out the moral high ground for the modern-day civil rights movement. It was classic good vs. evil. In the years immediately following her act, gory news scenes of baton-battering racist Southern sheriffs, fire hoses, police dogs and Klan violence unleashed against peaceful black protesters sickened Americans. All except the most rabid racists considered racial segregation immoral and indefensible. Parks and civil rights leaders were hailed as American heroes in the fight for justice. Martin Luther King Jr., who tops the list of those heroes and martyrs, owed a profound debt of gratitude to Parks. The Montgomery bus boycott launched him from obscure preacher to American icon.
Still, as America unraveled in the 1960s in the anarchy of urban riots, campus takeovers and antiwar street battles, the civil rights movement and its leaders fell apart too. Many of them fell victim to their own success. When they broke down the racially restricted doors of corporations, government agencies and universities, middle-class blacks, not the poor, were the ones who rushed headlong through those doors. Civil rights organizations and black politicians defined the black agenda in increasingly narrow terms: affirmative action, economic parity, professional advancement and busing replaced battling poverty, reducing unemployment, securing quality education, promoting self-help and gaining greater political empowerment as the goals for all African-Americans.
King's murder in 1968 was the turning point for race relations in America. The transformation of the old-line civil rights groups such as the NAACP into business and professional organizations left the black poor fragmented and politically rudderless. The black poor, lacking competitive technical skills and professional training and shunned by many middle-class black leaders, were shoved even further to the outer margins of American society. That included many young black men, such as the man who attacked Parks.
The chronic problems of gang and drug violence, family breakdown, soaring incarceration rates, the mounting devastation of HIV and AIDS and abysmally failing inner-city public schools have devastated poor black communities. Parks' adopted city, Detroit, is torn year in and year out by black-on-black violence.
The old civil rights organizations have been powerless to halt the slide. King's old organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, though it has recently shown signs of a revival, for years was wracked by bitter leadership infighting, threatened lawsuits and allegations of financial improprieties. The NAACP is still trying to find its legs with its corporate-leaning new leader. CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, is a shell of its former self, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) has long since disappeared.
Then there is the self-indulgent grab for expensive cars, clothes and dollars by the MTV generation. That came crashing down on Parks during her long-running battle with the rap group OutKast. The issue was their song "Rosa Parks." The group claimed it was a tribute to Parks. Parks saw it as a crass attempt to cash in on her name. She was horrified by the get-rich-quick gangster lifestyle of many young blacks. That was certainly not what Parks was fighting for when she made her fateful plunge into history.
Parks worried that young blacks had absolutely no sense and appreciation of the titanic battles that she and the civil rights leaders waged to make America live up to its much-betrayed promise of justice and equality. In a reflective interview many years after the bus boycott, she did not absolve herself and other blacks of her generation of blame for failing to pass on the torch. She called for a redoubling of the effort to make young blacks, as she put it, know what it means to be black in America today.
The civil rights struggle is now the stuff of nostalgia, history books and the memoirs of aging former civil rights leaders, and rightly so. Times have changed, and changed drastically. Parks and the civil rights movement did much to usher in those changes. They have made race relations in America more diverse and open, and at the same time more complex and challenging. Her heroic refusal to give up her seat on the bus, and the assault on her in her home, though worlds apart in time, are both part of the triumph and tragedy of her legacy.