Ironic indeed that when a historic figure 92 years old dies in this day and age, that if you don't comment within 24 hours that you are left behind. I speak, of course, of Rosa Parks.
It's an interesting issue, and I'm not sure that it's specific to the civil rights movement, but I'll get to that in a moment.
As a general point, historians tend to over-emphasize the importance of organized social change. Organized groups leave records and appear before legislative committees, and send things to the newspapers to get them published. The changing of the minds of ordinary people, the sensibilities and opinions of the masses are less easily tracked, more easily overlooked.
When you turn to popular history and commonly held ideas about the past, I think that there's a bit of a tendency in American history for people to remember events as being more the lot of ordinary citizens standing up than organized groups orchestrating confrontations with what they oppose. The Boston Tea Party, for example, was more orchestrated than spontaneous, yet I would wager that most Americans think of it as the Sons of Liberty just getting fed up one day and smashing tea crates. It is just easier for most of us to remember historical events with a personal face, rather than an abstract organizational one.
It's not unique to the memory of the civil rights movement that people have a tendency to remember the personal actions, and slight the importance of organized groups. But you can add to this, I think, the general tendency in America—and other countries—to want a palatable history of one's country. It would be, it is, quite discomforting to think that until the civil rights movement organized and fought and suffered considerable violence against it, that the southern states of America were racist, only partially democratic, and that that political regime was enforced by violence widely—but not universally—supported by the white population. And if you want to push that analysis forward, the failure of the federal government to carry through the promises of the Civil War and the subsequent amendments to the Constitution, and dismantle the racist Southern political system, meant that America was not a truly democratic country. It's preferable for most people to think that this stain on democracy was small enough that small actions like a tired seamstress keeping her seat were enough to bring it down.
Thus, with Rosa Parks these two tendencies, first that we understand history through personal stories, and second the largely unconscious desire for a palatable history, reinforce the emphasis on her personal protest.
Moving right along from Rosa Parks to Condoleeza Rice. Profiles of Rice rarely fail to mention her proximity as a child to the events of the 1960s, and her childhood friendship with one of the girls killed in the Birmingham bombings. So it says something positive about the development of American politics that there is a Republican ginger group to nominate Rice for the presidency in 2008.
It would probably be a great thing for American gender and racial politics if a single, childless, black woman who is interested in classical music and has a PhD could be the Republican candidate for president. But I really doubt it will happen.
Rice has shown no inclination to run for any offices outside the confines of the university. Her national political offices have all been appointive ones. Very few people in this day and age start their elective political careers by running for President, and fewer still by winning that office.
Of course there are exceptions, like Dwight Eisenhower, but Eisenhower had successfully prosecuted the Allied campaign in Europe on the ground. This has more electoral appeal than being one of the desk-bound architects of the American debacle in Iraq.
While it is more likely that the first black president and the first female president will be Republicans, it won't be Condoleeza Rice. Her biography seems impressive, but it isn't the biography of someone who is going to go out and put together a winning campaign for president.Posted by robe0419 at October 25, 2005 8:36 PM