Saturday, December 27, 2008

Rosa Parks: Speak for yourself

In the celebration of Kwanzaa, today's focus is Kujichagulia, or self-determination, "to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves." It underscores why speaking in public can be such a powerful tool for the speaker. It reminds me of Rosa Parks, a woman whose actions spoke loudly to millions--but who, ironically, often was passed over as a speaker during the American civil rights movement. Famous for refusing to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, for a white rider, Parks often had her story interpreted for her, as Gail Collins notes in America's Women:
The legend that built up around the incident...was that Parks, a simple woman exhausted from a hard day at work, took her stand because she was tired. In truth, she had been moving toward that moment of defiance all her life. "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in," she explained later.
Parks later was present for two key civil rights moments in which she was denied the opportunity to speak: The rally just before her own trial for the bus incident, and later, at the rally following the 1963 march on Washington, the site of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Collins notes, of the mass meeting held just before her trial, where the yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery was started:
Rosa Parks was given a standing ovation, but she was not given a chance to speak on a night in which virtually every black man in Montgomery wanted a moment in the spotlight. "You've said enough," one of the leaders assured her....[at the march] instead of marching with the male leaders, up front where the TV cameras and newspaper reporters were recording every minute of the event, [the women] were directed to walk with those men's wives. There was not a single woman scheduled to speak at the march, and when the lone woman on the 19-member planning committee protested, the organizers threw together a last-minute "Tribute to Women" in which A. Philip Randolph introduced Parks and other dignitaries...while they sat there silently..."Nowadays, women wouldn't stand for being kept so much in the background, but back then women's rights hadn't become a popular cause yet," said Parks later.
Parks did go on to tell her own side of her story in Rosa Parks: My Story, and historian Douglas Brinkley tackles it in Rosa Parks: A Life. We're coming up on an important confluence of anniversaries that will resonate with her life, in the Lincoln bicentennial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. Will black women have a voice in the speeches that honor those occasions?
Getting on the program has long been an issue for women, and one moment in Parks's story underscores once more the importance of having women involved in the programming decisions when speakers are being scheduled. Celebrate Kwanzaa--and Parks--by deciding to speak for yourself this year, whenever your story needs to be heard.