Why We're Not Waiting for Rosa [by Cindy Landrum]

There are many people who lament that Michael Brown is the particular focus of these rallies and protests.  Most recently, in Time, John McWhorter writes, "I mourn Brown as we all do, but I worry that we have chosen the wrong tragedy to wake this country up" ("Ferguson Is the Wrong Tragedy"). 

Yes, the critics of this choice say, we need to do something about police violence, but why not choose someone more innocent, someone who didn't steal cigarettes before his death at the hands of police?  Why not John Crawford, shot for choosing to shop for a BB gun at Wal-Mart?  Or even Tamir Rice, shot this month within seconds of the arrival of the policy, for playing with a toy gun in a park?   At only 12 years old, he's less the image of the "thug" than Michael Brown was.

 McWhorter writes, "But we must consider the contrast with, say, Martin, killed for resisting a baseless detainment by a self-declared neighborhood patrolman.  Or Amadou Diallo, killed in a lobby for pulling out a wallet.  Or John Crawford III, killed in Ohio for examining a BB gun at Walmart."

In Montgomery a year before the arrest of Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a young woman, Claudette Colvin, was arrested for not giving up her seat on the bus.  The leaders of the gathering movement  chose not to make their case around Claudette Colvin.  She wasn't a figure people could rally behind.

She was just a teen, and within a few months of her arrest, she had dropped out of school, pregnant, and unmarried.  But Rosa Parks heard her story, and worked with her following her arrest.  Mary Louise Smith was arrested between that date and the day Rosa Parks refused to stand up, too.  Rosa Parks was the secretary of the NAACP; she had attended the Highlander Folk School and was trained in activism.  She was the person chosen to start the movement: the right woman at the right time. 

It's understandable that people might look at Michael Brown and wish we had chosen a Rosa Parks for this movement.  But this is a movement about the killing of young Black men, so that Rosa Parks figure would be dead.  And this is also a movement about how law enforcement -- and all of society -- is trained to see young black men as scary, as "thugs," as "demons."  Perhaps any man whose death was chosen to launch the protest would be seen as no better than Michael Brown.  Every young black man becomes a demon, a thug, a hulk, once we're trying to justify his death. 

We can look back now, and see that when it was Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith (and Susie McDonald and Aurelia Browder and Janette Reese and more), it was still wrong that they had to give up their seat and that they were arrested for it.  We can see that maybe it shouldn't have taken a Rosa Parks to bring people together and launch the bus boycott.  At that time, it did.  But hopefully it doesn't take that now. 

In the end, I can't explain why Ferguson, and why Michael Brown, out of so many young Black men
who have been killed.  But I do know this movement, this protest, is bigger than Michael Brown.  It is the protest for Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and John Crawford.  It is the protest for Ezell Ford, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Amadour Diallo, Oscar Grant, Wendell Allen, and many more.

Michael Brown's tragedy isn't the wrong tragedy to wake this country up -- it's exactly the right tragedy, because for whatever reason, it did wake people up.  We don't need more unarmed black men to die, and we don't need to wait for Rosa.


  1. Steve Cook10:51 PM

    There is a way that these things are beyond the plans and calculations of "movements" and "leaders." I don't think the self-immolating fruit vendor was chosen by the leaders of a movement to kick off the "Arab Spring," it just happened. Perhaps it is grace; the long arc bending just here, just now, using this one flawed young man in such a way that all we flawed people are at once galvanized.

  2. it isn't just young men. Mr. Garner was't young and Kenneth chamberlain was an old man gunned down calling for help at home. Women also.

  3. Good on you, Cyndi. This is excellent. I'm so glad you have this venue in which to share your wise words.

  4. True, Kate. Correction accepted.


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