The passing of Rosa Parks has gone largely unnoticed by the European press. (There are lots of pressing issues here like riots in Paris or, maybe, the British cabinet minister who has resigned from his post for the second time in a year.) Bill Clinton, who presented Parks with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, said her actions “ignited the most significant social movement in modern American history,” and despite it not being America, I know her memory resonates with many issues here in Europe too. (Václav Havel received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.) Fortunately Parks has been highly honored in Detroit and throughout the U.S. It’s saddening yet encouraging to hear that she was the first woman to be laid in state at the capitol. A public viewing of her body at Detroit’s Wright Museum of African American History lasted until early this morning, and her remains were then transported to the Greater Grace Temple. In addition to Clinton’s, speeches were prepared by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Senator Debbie Stabenow, and ; Aretha Franklin was scheduled to sing. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm called parks a “heroic warrior for equality.” At least there are some things that are still worth fighting for.
The only similar event I have experienced while outside the U.S. was Ronald Reagan’s death and funeral last year. I never considered that I might compare these two icons of American history. I could think of little to celebrate about Reagan, but in former Eastern Bloc countries, he was the voice of freedom—the only politician who had the guts and power to face off with the “Evil Empire.” In the end I suppose, someone had to do it, but he did. And when I saw this here last summer my opinion of him changed slightly, though only slightly. (Reagan also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in January 1993, apparently a last-ditch act by Bush I; of course, Charlton Heston also received the award in 2003, so who knows what meaning it has if any. Just another icon I suppose.)
I hope that Parks’s memory and legacy grows to become an inspiration to Europeans, dealing with their own issues of integration and racial tension, in the future. I hope that her spirit eclipses Reagan’s legacy, even in Eastern Europe. And I hope her memory is proof that there are some wars worth fighting despite all of the false icons that America has been (and still is) wont to follow. Parks’s heroism was best captured in Gov. Granholm’s remarks, quoted in the Detroit Free Press: “Her greatness lay in doing what everybody could do but doesn’t.”