Is Everybody Picking on Rosa Parks?
Mary Wiltenburg writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
If she was tired then, she must surely be tired now. Forty-eight years ago this month, Alabama seamstress Rosa Parks took a seat in history, touching off a legal battle - and a 381-day bus boycott - that proved pivotal to the American civil rights movement.
Nearly a half century later, Ms. Parks is in court again - not to fight for her rights, but to defend her name.
Parks is suing rap duo OutKast for naming a song after her on its 1998 album "Aquemini." Last week, the US Supreme Court cleared the way for her to proceed with the lawsuit, which claims the song uses her name to sell a product she does not endorse.
This is not the first time the civil rights pioneer has taken a stand against popular culture's appropriation of her legacy. Last year, Parks boycotted the NAACP Image Awards, at which a movie about her life was celebrated, to protest another nominated film, "Barbershop," in which a character makes what Parks called "hurtful jokes" about her status as a black icon.
The ensuing flap has left some Americans raised on tales of Parks's heroism wondering: Why is this venerable icon suddenly under siege?
"Rosa Parks' legacy is in danger," says Doreen Loury, a professor of African-American studies at Arcadia University in Philadelphia. "Not because of its mention in popular movies and song, but because so few Americans who can recognize the great lady's face on a poster, have any idea what legal, political, and personal struggles put her there."
Partly, historians say, Parks's discomfort with these portrayals resembles that of other unintentional celebrities. But Parks's struggles also bring up race issues that are anything but black and white. Her renown spans the country. Her story - or a version of it, anyway - will be taught in almost every school in America. She is commonly promoted, often by white teachers, as a role model for black students.
It stands to reason, says Thomas Ross, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in race issues, that African-American artists who grew up on her story would need to grapple with it - even to an extent that might appear a kind of cultural blasphemy.
Dr. Loury believes that black Americans should be suspicious of figures white America has embraced as "black icons. …