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Roger Rosenblatt on the Legacy of Rosa Parks

Essayist Roger Rosenblatt looks at the legacy of civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

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  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    Ever since Rosa Parks died we have been shown her picture on the bus: Herself contained, secure, seated and looking out the bus window.

    There are several reasons to be entranced by this photograph, the clearest being that it represents one woman's right and therefore all our rights. That's the thing about civil rights: It's one for all.

    Once an African-American's equal status is established — or one woman's, or one gay or lesbian's, or anyone's anywhere — all votes rise.

    Of the many things for which one thanks Rosa Parks, her principal gift was that by taking her seat on the bus, she improved the life of her countrymen forever, which is why that photograph has a peculiar power in its silent composure; in her silent composure.

    Rosa Parks is not sitting defiantly or adamantly; her head is not bowed, either, as one's might after a tiring day of work. And she certainly does not appear nervous or apprehensive; she is simply looking out the bus window, just as anyone would — out the window, looking at something seen by her but not by us.

    Great and famous works of art make a lot of people looking somewhere that the observer, including the artist, cannot see. The tantalizing serenity of the Mona Lisa, of the Girl in a Pearl Earring, the look of Manet's "Fifer," or of Chuck Close's "Phil." These various subjects do not appear to be posing, not arranging their lives for the benefit of us who behold them. They are looking straight ahead or off to the side or out a window like Rosa Parks or Vermeer's "Geographer." Photographs, too: The daguerreotypes of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Andrew Jackson or Daniel Webster; or Diane Arbus' "Couple on a Park Bench"; or "Girl with a Cigar"; or Robert Capa's "Volunteer."

    The stares of children, of men, and of this woman, Rosa Parks, whose look might have resembled Thoreau's when he had been put in jail for protesting slavery, an earlier act of civil disobedience. Emerson visited him in jail and asked him "What are you doing in here?" Thoreau responded: "What are you doing out there?"

    One might make an artistic game of the photo of Rosa Parks, akin to guessing why the Mona Lisa is smiling. What is Rosa Parks looking at? It could be nothing, of course, just an all embracing stare passed in a mood of exhaustion or she could looking at another African-American woman walking along in a world that told her where she could sit or she could be daydreaming.

    My guess? I think she is looking at a white man on the street, any white man, whose life in its ignorance or intelligence or benignity or belligerence, was about to be freed at last by the lady sitting in a bus looking at him.

    I'm Roger Rosenblatt.

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