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Parks' legacy holds lesson
(Published November 14, 2005)


By some of the testimonials and tributes for the late Rosa Parks following her death at 92 last month, one might think that the world had just been waiting for her to refuse to relinquish her seat on that Montgomery, Ala., bus 50 years ago so that the civil rights movement could begin its inevitable march to the victories of the 1960s and beyond.

As the "mother of the civil rights movement" lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, one heard nothing but praise for her courage and the changes she helped put in motion.

But only if one looks at the actions of Parks and other civil rights pioneers from the vantage point of their own time and not in the context of the past half-century can one truly understand the extent to which they were stepping into dangerously uncharted territory. To challenge Jim Crow in that day was to risk arrest, imprisonment, possibly even death.

Rosa Parks' action and the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott took place as southern segregationists were plotting "massive resistance" to the Supreme Court's striking down of school segregation in the previous year's Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, and came before the lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides and voter registration drives that began to tear down Jim Crow brick by brick. Those who benefited from America's version of apartheid did not lay down quietly, but fought back with handcuffs, dogs, fire hoses and guns. It was hardly a warm and fuzzy time.

Rosa Parks' life and legacy hold important lessons for the District of Columbia's struggle for full democratic rights itself an unfinished chapter of the civil rights movement. For the most part, fighting racism and Jim Crow through legal channels had produced mostly frustration (Brown vs. Board being an important exception) as the legislative, executive and judicial decks were stacked with beneficiaries of the very caste system they were fighting. The only way out of the box was civil disobedience challenging unjust laws and an unjust system by openly defying them. This approach after years of sometimes violent resistance from the established powers finally broke down the door.

Likewise, advocates of full democracy for the District have mostly played by rules and have found those rules stacked against us. Courts have thrown out lawsuits to force the federal government to grant the District all or some of the rights of other Americans most recently on Nov. 4 when an appeals court ruled that the District cannot implement a commuter tax while legislation to provide congressional representation, budget autonomy or other rights languishes in Congress.

Like the beneficiaries of Jim Crow, those who benefit from the District's colonial status will not be swayed by logic or appeals to justice. Lobbying, petitioning and litigation are important parts of the struggle, but it is clear that more direct challenges are needed to challenge the legitimacy of a system that denies full democratic rights to the citizens of the nation's capital. D.C. democracy activists have engaged in direct action before, and surely will have to do it again, in order to achieve the same rights as the citizens of the 50 states. Those who believe the road to victory will be easy and free of sacrifice will find themselves mistaken.

Rosa Parks' gift to Americans, as D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said at the memorial service in her honor, "was not the message that I am doing this to free you. Her message was far more direct: Free yourself."

D.C. democracy activists would do well to follow this advice. Even as we gain allies everywhere we can find them, we ultimately will have to free D.C. ourselves. And just as there were no guarantees that Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat would end segregation on Montgomery's buses, there also is no guarantee that our hard work will bring democracy to the District. The only thing certain is that we surely will lose if we don't try.


Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! For Democracy in D.C. Coalition. Contact him at

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator