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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/18/10

Nine Years Ago: Eric Foner Reviews a Biography of Rosa Parks

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{February is African American History month. And no one should hold Barack Obama's pitiful first-year performance against it. This book review appeared in the May, 2001, issue of the London Review of Books. Eric Foner is DeWitt Professor of History at Columbia University in New York, and the author of "Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction."

The book being reviewed by Professor Foner is "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Life of Rosa Parks" by Douglas Brinkley (Weidenfeld, 2001) - GLR}

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On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black woman who had just completed her day's work in a department store in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, as required by municipal law. The incident sparked a year-long bus boycott, the beginning of the modern phase of the civil rights revolution. And it made Parks, the "seamstress with tired feet" (she was a tailor's assistant), an international symbol of ordinary blacks' determination to resist the daily injustices and indignities of the Jim Crow South.

Today, with the birthday of Martin Luther King a national holiday and Alabama cities like Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery competing to attract tourists by highlighting their role in the struggle for racial justice, Rosa Parks has become a national icon second only to King himself. Highways, city streets and subway stations have been named in her honor. A black fisherman in Alaska refers to himself, according to USA Today, as "the Rosa Parks of the Bering Sea'. In the past few years, Parks has been awarded a Congressional medal, been invited to sit beside the First Lady during a State of the Union address by President Clinton, and been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most significant individuals of the 20th century. Last December, at the street corner where she was arrested, Montgomery's city fathers opened the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, complete with a sculpture of Parks in her bus seat with space for visitors to have their pictures taken sitting alongside her bronze replica.

Douglas Brinkley's Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is the first serious biography of Parks. It is also part of a new series of brief lives of famous individuals written by authors not previously known for expertise on the subjects of their books. Brevity and the often surprising match between subject and author make the series distinctive. The "concept', as its editor James Atlas explained to me a few years ago, is to produce books that airline passengers can read on a flight from New York to San Francisco and finish before they reach the Golden Gate. Given the entertainment options available at 35,000 feet this is not an exacting standard. Most books in the series, including Brinkley's, have more than met it.

A historian whose previous work has concentrated on Presidential politics and American foreign relations, Brinkley faced a difficult challenge in approaching the life of Parks, and not only because this is his first book on the struggle for racial justice. Despite her status as the "mother of the civil rights movement," as a world-historical figure Parks ranks somewhat below Joan of Arc, Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci or Mao, who also figure in the series. Parks is important because of her connection with a mass movement, yet the series format does not lend itself to a life-and-times approach. Brinkley is a skilled writer who has combed the archives for information about Parks and the society in which she lived, and he succeeds in placing her life before the bus boycott in its political and social context. But her subsequent career and the fate of the movement she helped to inspire are treated in cursory fashion.

Born in Alabama in 1913, Parks grew up in a world of racial segregation and periodic lynchings; a deep economic gulf existed between the races; the Ku Klux Klan was again on the rise. The daughter of a schoolteacher and a carpenter who abandoned the family when she was young, Parks was raised by her grandparents. She sought solace from the deprivations of poverty and racism in the black church. The young Parks prayed regularly, read the Bible daily, and while imbibing the principle of turning the other cheek, coupled Christian forgiveness with a determination to stand up for her rights. From her grandfather, an admirer of Marcus Garvey, she heard the message of racial pride and self-discipline, lessons reinforced at the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls. For a few years, she attended this institution for blacks founded after the Civil War by Northern missionaries, until the Klan ran the headmaster out of town and forced the school to close.

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I have a law degree (Stanford, 66') but have never practiced. Instead, from 1967 through 1977, I tried to contribute to the revolution in America. As unsuccessful as everyone else over that decade, in 1978 I went to work for the U.S. Forest (more...)
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