Remembering Rosa Parks

Making room in the classroom for a civil rights' icon and the practice of civil disobedience

The death of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks on October 24th coupled with the fiftieth anniversary on December 1, of her refusal to relinquish her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus allows us to once again examine the state of our nation’s soul. Parks’ small act in defiance of segregation in 1955 on that bus, and her resulting arrest, helped galvanize a fledgling revolution against bias in the United States. It is also challenges us to consider our own cooperation with injustice.

Of course, Parks’ act of civil disobedience was not without precedent. Civil disobedience has long been a major weapon in humanity’s struggle against injustice and stretches back in the U.S. to 19th century essayist Henry David Thoreau.

In his refusal to pay a poll tax in 1849, Thoreau was arrested and spent a night in jail. He reasoned that by paying the tax, he was not only providing money for a federal government with which he was in disagreement but through his compliance, supporting its policies. In his seminal essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Thoreau writes: “if the . . . machine of government . . . is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, I say, break the law.”

Students and the Duty of Civil Disobedience

When teaching Thoreau’s essay to high school classes over the years, I have usually posed an intentionally provocative question in the form a journal prompt: In what situations today, real or hypothetical, would you commit an act of passive resistance?

In my laughably unscientific survey, I have found that most students would not be willing to be arrested for challenging a societal wrong, whatever it may be, and for various reasons:

  • Getting a criminal record and sacrificing future success far outweighs the good that may be achieved by the act.
  • I would not want my loved ones to be harmed as a result of my action, whether by association or through revenge of some kind.
  • Spending time in jail is reason enough not to do it. Being away from friends, boredom beyond belief, crappy food and the chance of being sexually assaulted are the main issues.
  • I’m too lazy to commit the act, and since it requires a hell of a lot of planning, it could get in the way of important time spent with my Gameboy and DP3.
  • I could see myself doing it, but I would have to have some sort of guarantee that nothing bad would happen to me and that my protest would actually have an effect.

The One with the Most to Lose

On the rare occasion, however, there is a student who responds unequivocally that he/she would commit the act if the situation called for it –one in particular comes to mind.

“Liz” was not a stereotypical rebel. A stellar student, polite to a fault, unusually compliant, Liz was the one with the most lose.

In her transcendent journal entry on the matter, she directly appealed to other classmates to examine Thoreau’s words scrupulously, or as he might say, to “suck the marrow” out of the matter.

She reasoned that civil disobedience was not to be applied selectively and only when there is an insurance policy attached to it. The result of not resisting, of tacitly permitting injustice to thrive, must outweigh the personal consequence of resisting it.

Has there ever been a time in our history when the majority of people were willing to break the law for a cause and to leap out of their comfort zones into a risky reality?

Even if one’s safety or future success is at stake, civil disobedience must still be committed. It cannot be a fair-weather friend. Injustice waits for no one.

Liz also accused the current ease-addicted society, with its Home Shopping Network and, of creating an environment all-too-inviting for evil to dine in–idle hands truly are the devil’s helper.

Wake Up Time

Further, she saw us (herself included) of harboring historical myopia. Will segregation some day be marketed to us in a sanitized and smooth-edged package and will we buy it? Will the struggle for liberation at some point be seen as much ado about nothing? Are we so confident that history does not repeat itself that we can take a nap?

Adults and kids alike need to come out from under their Motorolas and iPods, she exhorts, revive their senses, and take an un-anesthetized look at the inequities howling in front of them. Wake up, for God’s sake! There’s still work to be done!

Students like Liz remind me of why I teach.

And I occasionally wonder how (not if) she has acted on her admirable convictions.

Comfort Zone

I must add that Liz’s unexpurgated investigation and those of my students as a whole have always provoked my own personal reflection. Honestly, I am not sure at this point in my life I would be willing to be arrested for a cause. I have a wife, kids, teaching job, health insurance, IRA and 503B –all stones in a relatively sturdy wall of adulthood, all too valuable to risk.

Has there ever been a time in our history when the majority of people were willing to break the law for a cause and to leap out of their comfort zones into a risky reality? Haven’t there always been those that maintain the status quo and those that disrupt it?

Certainly, work still needs to be done, even though we have come a long way from institutionalized segregation. True, maybe we are not equipped for the next fight for freedom, for the next bloodless revolution. Perhaps we are too plump and lazy these days to stage a genuine revolution.

Yet with current crossers such as Rosa and Liz, there is some hope for those of us swimming in the mainstream.