Monday, October 31, 2005

Tocqueville in Alabama

To: Members of PoliSci. 181-601 (Modern Political Thought)
From: Jeff Weintraub
Re: Tocqueville in Alabama

During the class meeting we happened to be talking about the southern civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s, out of which figures like Martin Luther King emerged. Another of those figures was Rosa Parks, who recently died. By a nice coincidence, a sympathetic article about Rosa Parks's life in today's New York Times highlights some of the themes we've been dealing with in Tocqueville.

=> Consider, for example, some points emphasized by Tocqueville in Democracy in America:
"In our own day freedom of association has become a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority. [….] Here I would repeat something which I have put in other words when speaking of municipal freedom: no countries need associations more—to prevent either despotism of parties or the arbitrary rule of a prince—than those with a democratic social condition [état social]" (p. 192)

"Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon another." (p. 515)

"Among democratic peoples associations must take the place of the powerful private persons whom equality of conditions has eliminated. [....] Thenceforth, they are no longer isolated individuals, but a power conspicuous from the distance whose actions serve as an example; when it speaks, men listen." (p. 516)

"In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others. [….] If men are to remain civilized or to become civilized, the art of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as equality of conditions." (p. 517)

"There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.” (p. 270)
=> Do these points, and the larger analyses in which they're embedded, help to illuminate anything significant about the political career of Rosa Parks and the movement in which she participated? For example:
The truth is that Mrs. Parks was not someone who one day, out of the blue, decided to defy the local custom of blacks sitting in the back of the bus. That story leads some people to the cynical conclusion, once voiced by a character in the movie "Barbershop," that all Rosa Parks did was sit on her bottom. That's not only insulting but a distortion that takes away the powerful truth that Rosa Parks worked hard to develop her own political consciousness and then worked hard to build a politically aware black community in the heart of Dixie.

Before that one moment of defiance on the bus she was a civil rights activist who had long fought to get voting rights for black people in Alabama. Apparently it is too confusing to mention that as far back as 1943 she had refused to follow the rules requiring black people to enter city buses through the back door. And it invites too much complexity to mention that in the late 40's, as an official of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., she was forming a coalition with a group of black and white women in Montgomery to fight segregated seating on city buses.   [....]\

All of this preceded the moment when Rosa Parks refused to give up her own seat on the bus. Even after her arrest she had to agree to fight the charges of violating segregation laws, and risk angering the white establishment in town and losing her job. Her husband and her mother told her she was going to be lynched for becoming the named plaintiff in a challenge to segregation. She made a deliberate decision to take up the fight. There was nothing spontaneous about this. And she knew that she would not be fighting alone.  [....]

Take two other black women who died recently with much less attention to their life work. Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to be a federal judge, was an N.A.A.C.P. lawyer who helped to write briefs used in arguing the Brown school desegregation case. In the 50's, she went into hostile towns all over the South and won case after case to make sure that their school districts really integrated. She also directed the legal campaign that led to the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi and stood by him as he faced down segregationist violence to enroll. And she stayed with Medgar Evers as he battled the racists who eventually killed him.   [Etc.]
Yours for citizenship,
Jeff Weintraub

====================
New York Times
October 31, 2005
Op-Ed Contributor
The Long History of a Bus Ride

By Juan Williams
Washington
Rosa Parks led an inspiring life. Unfortunately, we rarely hear about it.
That may sound surprising at a time when Rosa Parks is probably mentioned in every American history textbook and is the subject of dozens of biographies. The problem is that her story is usually presented as a simplistic morality tale. It is a paint-by-the numbers picture of virtue that goes like this:
On Dec. 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks is an ordinary 42-year-old seamstress in downtown Montgomery, Ala. She leaves work and gets on the Cleveland Avenue bus to go home. When the whites-only section fills up, the bus driver yells at Mrs. Parks to give up her seat to a white man. She refuses and is arrested. Simply by sitting on a bus, Mrs. Parks sets off the year-long Montgomery bus boycott that galvanizes national attention, brings the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the start of his journey as a civil rights leader and creates a model of nonviolent protest against racial segregation.
There's no denying the appeal of this story - her body began lying in honor in the Capitol yesterday. But this telling of the tale does a disservice to Mrs. Parks and twists the history of the civil rights movement. Her story is about more than one bus ride. And the civil rights movement is more than one moment of defiance. The focus on Rosa Parks leads to the neglect of other civil rights pioneers who did far more to shape history.
Take two other black women who died recently with much less attention to their life work. Constance Baker Motley, the first black woman to be a federal judge, was an N.A.A.C.P. lawyer who helped to write briefs used in arguing the Brown school desegregation case. In the 50's, she went into hostile towns all over the South and won case after case to make sure that their school districts really integrated. She also directed the legal campaign that led to the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi and stood by him as he faced down segregationist violence to enroll. And she stayed with Medgar Evers as he battled the racists who eventually killed him.
Another woman who recently died, C. DeLores Tucker, didn't face that kind of drama. But she broke through political barriers to become Pennsylvania's commonwealth secretary, then blazed new paths by working to get other black people into elected office and challenging misogyny in rap music.
The one-dimensional telling of one day in the life of Rosa Parks takes her away from the real story - and to my mind the really inspiring story - of extraordinary black women like Judge Motley and Ms. Tucker, who rose from working-class backgrounds to become dedicated to creating social change.
The truth is that Mrs. Parks was not someone who one day, out of the blue, decided to defy the local custom of blacks sitting in the back of the bus. That story leads some people to the cynical conclusion, once voiced by a character in the movie "Barbershop," that all Rosa Parks did was sit on her bottom. That's not only insulting but a distortion that takes away the powerful truth that Rosa Parks worked hard to develop her own political consciousness and then worked hard to build a politically aware black community in the heart of Dixie.
Before that one moment of defiance on the bus she was a civil rights activist who had long fought to get voting rights for black people in Alabama. Apparently it is too confusing to mention that as far back as 1943 she had refused to follow the rules requiring black people to enter city buses through the back door. And it invites too much complexity to mention that in the late 40's, as an official of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., she was forming a coalition with a group of black and white women in Montgomery to fight segregated seating on city buses.
Her education in rural Pine Level, Ala., came at Jim Crow schools that taught her only enough to work for white people as a washerwoman, maid or seamstress. In Montgomery, she worked mending dresses. One of her employers was Virginia Durr, the wife of a powerful white lawyer. Mrs. Durr, a member of the interracial Women's Political Council, became Mrs. Parks's ally in a long-term effort to use political pressure to end the daily indignity of riding segregated buses.
Mrs. Durr introduced Mrs. Parks to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The school taught strategies to empower white and black people to get better wages, to register to vote and organize as a political force. Even before Highlander, Mrs. Parks had championed the rights of a teenager, Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in March 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to white people on a Montgomery bus.
All of this preceded the moment when Rosa Parks refused to give up her own seat on the bus. Even after her arrest she had to agree to fight the charges of violating segregation laws, and risk angering the white establishment in town and losing her job. Her husband and her mother told her she was going to be lynched for becoming the named plaintiff in a challenge to segregation. She made a deliberate decision to take up the fight. There was nothing spontaneous about this. And she knew that she would not be fighting alone.
Rosa Parks was uncomfortable with the sainthood thrust upon her, and used to say there was more to her life than "being arrested on a bus." Her full, not so simple story is a guide to activism, an inspiration to every American trying to find the power to create social change. The best way to honor her memory is by also celebrating those people whose stories are not so easy to grasp, but who played roles that Rosa Parks would have said overshadowed her own.
Juan Williams, a senior correspondent for NPR and a political analyst for Fox News Channel, is working on a book about Bill Cosby and race.

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