Remembering Rosa Parks: Recognizing a Contemporary Prophetic Act
Bush, Randall K., Theological Studies
OVER THE YEARS, the historic event associated with Rosa Parks has been characterized in the following way: On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a good-hearted, non-political, middle-aged seamstress was so tired from work that she refused to give up her seat on the bus ride home, indirectly setting in motion the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. (1) This version honors various admirable qualities found in Parks's story, namely, her womanhood, her work ethic, and her physical tiredness after a hard day's work. Unfortunately, it sidesteps the fundamental issue of racial injustice in favor of focusing on the contrast between a tired woman and a belligerent bus driver. It also ignores the mountain of evidence that insists Rosa Parks should never be characterized simply as a good-hearted seamstress.
As the United States prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks's act of civil disobedience, it is critical that the flawed cultural myths associated with that December day be challenged and corrected. What happened on that bus was far from haphazard or coincidental. By examining some of the factors that influenced Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat, it is possible to recognize the markings of a contemporary prophetic act.
To assist in this process, two precedents, one scriptural and one historical, will be briefly considered. First, the Hebrew Scriptures contain the account of Jeremiah's purchase of the field in Anathoth (Jeremiah 32:1-15). This act was basically an event in the form of a simile, for it suggested that just as the Anathoth field was sold to Jeremiah, other plots of land near Jerusalem would also be bought and sold in the future. Jeremiah's deed was not a miniature of a larger event, like the smashing of the potter's vessel (Jeremiah 19:1-13) that symbolized a coming destruction on a much larger scale. Rather it is the first purchase in what would be a long series of purchases occurring during an anticipated period of future restoration. (2)
Second, this incident involved the attribution of prophetic qualities to a type of action that might otherwise be considered quite ordinary. In normal times, buying a field of land was a commonplace occurrence. But, by buying a field already under the control of the invading Babylonian army, Jeremiah risked marking himself as a traitor. Only persons expecting to be able to retain ownership of their property under the conquering regime would have reasonably considered purchasing land at that time. Jeremiah, however, designated this act as symbolic of a promise made by the God of Israel that normal life would one day resume in the land. (3) Through this deliberate act, Jeremiah proclaimed a prophetic message of hope that would sustain the people during the Babylonian exile.
The historical precedent that now will be considered comes from an event that occurred 25 years prior to Parks's act of civil disobedience, namely, the 1930 Salt March of Mahatma Gandhi. On March 12, 1930, Gandhi and 78 followers departed from his ashram outside Ahmedabad, intending to march 240 miles to the coastal city of Dandi. There Gandhi would lead the group in picking up natural sea salt, thus defying the oppressive Salt Laws and provoking a campaign of mass civil disobedience. Gandhi targeted these laws for three main reasons: they taxed the principal condiment of the poor; they forbade the local manufacture of a bountiful natural resource; and they fostered an unnecessary dependence on imported British goods. (4) The procession reached the sea on the evening of April 5, but it was decided not to perform any acts of civil disobedience until the next day. Early on April 6, Gandhi picked up some rough sea salt and reportedly said, "With this, I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire." (5) Almost immediately, thousands became involved in acts of civil disobedience. By the end of the year, over 60,000 people were imprisoned for acts as seemingly minor as what Gandhi had done on the beach of Dandi. …