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In this mailing we include an essay from Paul Rogat Loeb regarding Rosa
Parks and the heritage and lessons of the civil rights struggle in the
U.S., plus an interview with ZNet writer Mike Marqusee about his
new/revised book Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s. 

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Paul Rogat Loeb

We learn much from how we present our heroes. A few years ago, on Martin
Luther King. Day, I was interviewed on CNN. So was Rosa Parks, by phone
from Los Angeles. "We're very honored to have her," said the host. "Rosa
Parks was the woman who wouldn't go to the back of the bus. She wouldn't
get up and give her seat in the white section to a white person. That
set in motion the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned Rosa
Parks the title of 'mother of the Civil Rights movement.'"

I was excited to hear Parks's voice and to be part of the same show.
Then it occurred to me that the host's description--the story's standard
rendition and one repeated even in many of her obituaries--stripped the
Montgomery boycott of all of its context. Before refusing to give up her
bus seat, Parks had been active for twelve years in the local NAACP
chapter, serving as its secretary. The summer before her arrest, she'd
had attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee's labor and civil
rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she'd met an
older generation of civil rights activists, like South Carolina teacher
Septima Clark, and discussed the recent Supreme Court decision banning
"separate-but-equal" schools. During this period of involvement and
education, Parks had become familiar with previous challenges to
segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier,
successfully eased some restrictions; a bus boycott in Baton Rouge won
limited gains two years before Parks was arrested; and the previous
spring, a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back of
the bus, causing the NAACP to consider a legal challenge until it turned
out that she was unmarried and pregnant, and therefore a poor symbol for
a campaign.

In short, Rosa Parks didn't make a spur-of-the-moment decision. She
didn't single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts, but she
was part of an existing movement for change, at a time when success was
far from certain. We all know Parks's name, but few of us know about
Montgomery NAACP head E.D. Nixon, who served as one of her mentors and
first got Martin Luther King involved.  Nixon carried people's suitcases
on the trains, and was active in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car
Porters, the union founded by legendary civil rights activist A. Philip
Randolph. He played a key role in the campaign. No one talks of him, any
more than they talk of JoAnn Robinson, who taught nearby at an
underfunded and segregated Black college and whose Women's Political
Council distributed the initial leaflets following Parks's arrest.
Without the often lonely work of people like Nixon, Randolph, and
Robinson, Parks would likely have never taken her stand, and if she had,
it would never have had the same impact.

This in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of Parks's
refusal to give up her seat. But it reminds us that this tremendously
consequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on all
the humble and frustrating work that Parks and others undertook earlier
on. It also reminds us that Parks's initial step of getting involved was
just as courageous and critical as the stand on the bus that all of us
have heard about.

People like Parks shape our models of social commitment. Yet from
responses to talks I've given throughout the country, most citizens do
not know the full story of her involvement. And the conventional
stripped-down retelling creates a standard so impossible to meet, it may
actually make it harder for us to get involved, inadvertently removing
away Parks's most powerful lessons of hope.

This conventional portrayal suggests that social activists come out of
nowhere, to suddenly take dramatic stands. It implies that we act with
the greatest impact when we act alone, at least initially. And that
change occurs instantly, as opposed to building on a series of
often-invisible actions. The myth of Parks as lone activist reinforces a
notion that anyone who takes a committed public stand, or at least an
effective one, has to be a larger-than-life figure--someone with more
time, energy, courage, vision, or knowledge than any normal person could
ever possess. This belief pervades our society, in part because the
media tends not to represent historical change as the work of ordinary
human beings, which it almost always is.

Once we enshrine our heroes on pedestals, it becomes hard for mere
mortals to measure up in our eyes. However individuals speak out, we're
tempted to dismiss their motives, knowledge, and tactics as
insufficiently grand or heroic. We fault them for not being in command
of every fact and figure, or being able to answer every question put to
them. We fault ourselves as well, for not knowing every detail, or for
harboring uncertainties and doubts. We find it hard to imagine that
ordinary human beings with ordinary flaws might make a critical
difference in worthy social causes.

Yet those who act have their own imperfections, and ample reasons to
hold back. "I think it does us all a disservice," says a young
African-American activist in Atlanta named Sonya Tinsley, "when people
who work for social change are presented as saints--so much more noble
than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were
born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circle
of light. But I'm much more inspired learning how people succeeded
despite their failings and uncertainties. It's a much less intimidating
image. It makes me feel like I have a shot at changing things too."
Sonya had recently attended a talk given by one of Martin Luther King's
Morehouse professors, in which he mentioned how much King had struggled
when he first came to college, getting only a 'C,' for example, in his
first philosophy course. "I found that very inspiring, when I heard it,"
Sonya said, "given all that King achieved. It made me feel that just
about anything was possible."

Our culture's misreading of the Rosa Parks story speaks to a more
general collective amnesia, where we forget the examples that might most
inspire our courage, hope, and conscience. Apart from obvious times of
military conflict, most of us know next to nothing of the many battles
ordinary men and women fought to preserve freedom, expand the sphere of
democracy, and create a more just society. Of the abolitionist and civil
rights movements, we at best recall a few key leaders--and often misread
their actual stories. We know even less about the turn-of-the-century
populists who challenged entrenched economic interests and fought for a
"cooperative commonwealth." Who these days can describe the union
movements that ended 80-hour work weeks at near-starvation wages? Who
knows the origin of the social security system, now threatened by
systematic attempts to privatize it? How did the women's suffrage
movement spread to hundreds of communities, and gather enough strength
to prevail?

As memories of these events disappear, we lose the knowledge of
mechanisms that grassroots social movements have used successfully in
the past to shift public sentiment and challenge entrenched
institutional power. Equally lost are the means by which their
participants managed to keep on and eventually prevail in circumstances
at least as harsh as those we face today.
Think again about the different ways one can frame Rosa Parks's historic
action. In the prevailing myth, Parks decides to act almost on a whim,
in isolation. She's a virgin to politics, a holy innocent. The lesson
seems to be that if any of us suddenly got the urge to do something
equally heroic, that would be great. Of course most of us don't, so we
wait our entire lives to find the ideal moment.

Parks's real story conveys a far more empowering moral. She begins with
seemingly modest steps. She goes to a meeting, and then another, helping
build the community that in turn supported her path. Hesitant at first,
she gains confidence as she speaks out. She keeps on despite a
profoundly uncertain context, as she and others act as best they can to
challenge deeply entrenched injustices, with little certainty of
results. Had she and others given up after her tenth or eleventh year of
commitment, we might never have heard of Montgomery.

Parks also reminds us that even in a seemingly losing cause, one person
may unknowingly inspire another, and that person yet a third, who may
then go on to change the world, or at least a small corner of it. Rosa
Parks's husband Raymond convinced her to attend her first NAACP meeting,
the initial step on a path that brought her to that fateful day on the
bus in Montgomery. But who got Raymond Parks involved? And why did that
person take the trouble to do so? What experiences shaped their outlook,
forged their convictions? The links in any chain of influence are too
numerous, too complex to trace. But being aware that such chains exist,
that we can choose to join them, and that lasting change doesn't occur
in their absence, is one of the primary ways to sustain hope, especially
when our actions seem too insignificant to amount to anything.

Finally, Parks's journey suggests that change is the product of
deliberate, incremental action, whereby we join together to try to shape
a better world. Sometimes our struggles will fail, as did many earlier
efforts of Parks, her peers, and her predecessors. Other times they may
bear modest fruits. And at times they will trigger a miraculous
outpouring of courage and heart--as happened with her arrest and all
that followed. For only when we act despite all our uncertainties and
doubts do we have the chance to shape history.

Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little
While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3
political book of fall 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book
Association, and winner of the Nautilus Award for best social change
book of the year. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living
With Conviction in a Cynical Time.  See www.paulloeb.org  To receive his
monthly articles email [EMAIL PROTECTED] with the subject line:  subscribe


Author Interview
Mike Marqusee
Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s

Can you tell ZNet, please, what your book is about? What is it trying to

Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s (Seven Stories) tells two
intertwining stories of the 1960s, of an intransigently individual
artist and of the social movement with which he interacted. One sheds
light on the other. Dylan was hailed at an early age as the voice of a
generation, but rebelled against the label and set off on an artistic
journey of his own, creating the innovatory and majestic music of the
mid-1960s albums. Yet these "anti-political" songs resonate with
political, social, and cultural concerns.

Tracing the thread that binds Dylan's restless art to its rapidly
shifting environment is the book's primary purpose. However, I don't see
the songs as transparent reflections of the times. Dylan was not a
passive lightning rod, an impersonal conductor of great historic
currents. Rather, he was a navigator of those currents. He didn't pander
to his followers; he interrogated them.

My book is not an exercise in 1960s romanticism. In Dylan's eloquent
indictments of militarism and racism, his visions of a society ruled by
greed and governed by lies, and in his tortured interaction with his
times, there are lessons and warnings for the present and future. "To
live outside the law you must be honest/ And I know you always say that
you agree."

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the
content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

I grew up in the States in the 1960s and was a Dylan fan from age 13.
Discovering him, getting to grips with his work, trying to keep pace
with him were formative experiences, both politically and aesthetically.
I had written about Dylan in my book on Muhammad Ali, Redemption Song,
but felt there was much more to explore. So I returned to the music -- a
unique treasury -- and at the same time to the events surrounding the
songs. In doing so, I drew not only on published sources but also my own

Meanwhile, a new anti-war movement was on the rise, and a new generation
of activists was struggling with the dilemmas of movement-building --
and discovering Dylan. Sometimes, I think new activists are too daunted
by the 1960s. Self-indulgent celebration of our generation and of Dylan
does them no favors. The legacy of the era is rich, but only if it is
examined critically.

What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or
achieve politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the
book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy
about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was
worth all the time and effort?

I hope that the book will send people back to Dylan's glorious songs
with a sharpened appetite and a keener appreciation of their genius. I
hope that they will be able to draw from the songs some of the
inspiration, solace, and stimulation I've found in them. I also hope the
book will add something to readers' understanding of the complexities of
the great social movements of the 1960s and of the relationship between
artists and movements in general.

Finally, I hope the book will help us rescue the sharp and challenging
edge of both Dylan's work and the struggles of the 1960s from
sentimentality, caricature, and the packaged banality of the corporate

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