Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What's in a Name?: Some Thoughts for the Debate Regarding the Rosa Parks Library in Montgomery, Alabama

As a Montgomery native, I wrote the following comments on Rosa Parks and shared them with minority members of the Montgomery City Council, along with the Chairman, and one of our State Representatives. I shared them with just a few people, including some who know me, so as not to be intrusive or bombarding, as I know our leaders are very busy. They were submitted informally in the hope that they might be useful in the midst of the public dialogue on the current proposal before the Montgomery City Council to remove Parks's name from the library on the street named for her in Montgomery, and to replace it with the name of Bertha Pleasant Williams, a pioneering librarian in the city who also has connections to civil rights legacies. The proposition will be discussed at the City Council meeting later today. I never imagined that I would end up engaged in some activism related to Rosa Parks myself, but felt compelled to at least offer some perspectives, even if unofficially, given how much her legacy has impacted me in my own life, and also now helps to shape aspects of my academic and art work. The comments that I am sharing below will stand in, then, as post # 3 in my series of meditations on the road to Parks's centenary in 2013.

Link to news article about this issue as it has unfolded in the Montgomery public sphere


Rosa Parks Avenue Branch Library in Montgomery, Alabama

I write to share some thoughts about my work on the legacy of Rosa Parks as the City Council in Montgomery considers a proposal to change the name of the library branch now named in her honor to alternatively honor the legacy of Mrs. Bertha Pleasant Williams, a pioneering librarian in the city who also made landmark contributions to civil rights history. I am a Montgomery, Alabama native who now works as an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University. I am also an artist. After I graduated from St. Jude Educational Institute in 1989, I went on to complete my B.A. at Spelman College in 1993 and my Ph.D. at Duke University in 1998. In 2009, I served as a Cultural Envoy of the U.S. Embassy in France under the auspices of the U.S. State Department and in conjunction with the national quilt exhibition “Un Patchwork de Cultures,” and was also honored with a talk, reception, film screening and exhibition at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Paris. In Montgomery, several major public events related to both my work as a scholar and artist have been hosted at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, including the first talk and book signing related to my first book, Black Masculinity and the U.S. South (University of Georgia Press) in 2007, and my first art exhibition, Portraits: From Montgomery to Paris, in 2008.

As a teen in Montgomery, I volunteered weekly when I was 16 and 17 at the Cleveland Avenue YMCA in a program for children that I developed under the supervision of Mr. Robert James, which focused on tutoring and building their social graces and leadership skills. I have long cared about the community where the library currently named for Rosa Parks is located. At age 17, I also won a first-place prize in a contest in the city for a dramatic poem I wrote honoring Rosa Parks entitled “Together We Will Win.” During the time that I was a teen volunteer in Montgomery, it was astonishing to me that one of the children, an eight-year-old boy in my group, had actually thought that the Governor’s Mansion in our city was the nation’s White House, until I clarified these distinctions for him. We cannot by any means take for granted that a major name change for the library at this point would not be confusing to some of our youth.

In my research and writing on Rosa Parks, which is the subject of the second chapter in the second book-length manuscript I am now developing, I have focused on the global reach of her legacy. It is quite significant that even before her historic choice to remain seated on James Blake’s bus in 1955, Parks’s earliest activism took the form of escorting groups of children to segregated public libraries in an attempt to help them secure library cards. Her library card activism is an aspect of her legacy that the 2002 Julie Dash film starring Angela Bassett entitled The Rosa Parks Story compellingly highlights. Moreover, with the support of editors, Parks has authored several books pitched to young audiences, including Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth, I Am Rosa Parks, and Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope and the Heart of a Woman who Changed A Nation, as well as her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story. She is also the subject of countless children’s books by authors ranging from the celebrated quilt artist Faith Ringgold to the poet Nikki Giovanni, and has also been honored in volumes of poetry by U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove and Nikki Finney. These aspects of her legacy demonstrate how effective and prominent Parks has remained as a role model for children over time and how much she herself has remained a topic of interest for reading and study among them. She has been a veritable “ambassador” for reading among children in our culture. The association of her name with a public library in our city where children can check out books has served as a most fitting tribute to her given her commitment to promoting projects related to literacy and reading during her lifetime. I feel that precisely because Parks is globally known, so linked to a legacy of activism in segregated libraries, and so ubiquitous as both a subject and writer of children's books, her legacy in Montgomery is useful to link to a public library in the sense that the Branch on Rosa Parks Ave. currently functions. This is the primary reason that I do not want to see her name entirely replaced at the library on Rosa Parks Avenue at this point.

My second concern relates to the potential for economic development that the area where the library is located holds for the city of Montgomery given its promise as a major epicenter for touring and studying civil rights legacies related to the historic 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott in the South as a region. The library named for Rosa Parks is one of the major signposts now visible on this map in West Montgomery. This map also includes a range of other important sites such as E.D. Nixon’s historic home on Clinton Avenue; the apartment in Cleveland Courts where Parks and her family lived at the time of her arrest; the Trinity Lutheran Church where Rev. Robert Graetz, a friend of Parks’s, served as minister; and E.D. Nixon Elementary School. Furthermore, the close proximity of this artery off Rosa Parks Avenue to “The City of St. Jude” on Fairview Avenue, which is best historically known as the final camping place for the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers in 1965, makes this district a prime one for tourist development related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Indeed, this area has the potential to increase its audience of tourists exponentially when fully developed, and to draw visitors from around the nation as well as around the globe. If anything, I feel that now is the time for the development of a more concrete action plan to promote tourism in this area, so that the city will be poised to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, in light of the impending 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 2015, along with the 50th anniversary of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery March. Subtracting the library from this rich “Bus Boycott” map in that area by entirely eliminating Rosa Parks’s name from the library building, when considering all of the possibilities for tourism in that area, is therefore a move that I feel should be given careful and serious thought. In general, I am also inspired by the rich and detailed discussion of this area in Montgomery that the historian Douglas Brinkley offers in his biography of Parks entitled Rosa Parks: A Life.

In raising these points about the importance of Parks’s legacy and expressing my own concerns about what is at stake in removing her name at this point, I must underscore my support for also honoring Bertha Pleasant Williams given her pioneering work as a librarian in Montgomery. She is most deserving of a tribute and I am deeply inspired to see the public campaign advocating that she been honored by renaming the library. My own concern relates to the potential implications of taking Parks’s name off the building altogether and the message that such a move might send. To be sure, the history and legacy of Rosa Parks are unassailable. At the same time, the idea of taking a person’s name off of a building can have a negative connotation, as we have witnessed most recently in the Sandusky case that has tarnished the legacy of legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno and raised questions about whether he should continue to be honored on campus in buildings and a statue. In general, I have never found it productive when the legacies of Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks have been dichotomized. Similarly, I don't want to see an either/or dichotomy develop in the cases of Parks and Williams as black women, for both of these legacies are worthy of the deepest respect. It is possible to work out a solution that will be mutually beneficial. I do like the idea of including a designation to Mrs. Williams on the premises, whatever shape it takes. One idea that Eric Acree, the librarian for the John Henrik Clarke Library here at Cornell in the Africana Center, mentioned is establishing a reading desk, reading room, or even commissioning an art tribute that the branch might spotlight in Mrs. Williams’s honor. We now offer tributes to a range of our veteran faculty here in similar ways. Even in the wake of the opening of the monumental national memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the capitol, none of the ways in which we now honor civil rights leaders can ever be taken for granted. We need to remember that the struggles for projects from establishing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday (1968-1986) to designating the Council House as a national historic site on the capitol in honor of Mary McLeod Bethune (1982) have all been hard-won.

In her landmark autobiography, and in the final chapter entitled “The Years Since,” Parks acknowledges that “Today, Cleveland Avenue is named Rosa Parks Boulevard”(183). On the cusp of her 100th birthday in 2013, I am excited about the global celebrations of her legacy that are in store, and that Montgomery will stand at the forefront of them. I do understand that the public library branch, originally named the Cleveland Avenue Branch, was only named for Parks once the name of the street was changed to honor her. Renaming the library altogether is not the choice that I prefer myself in light of the salience that I hope will continue to be given to Parks’s legacy in that community. It is a choice that I will certainly accept if it is the outcome of the City Council meeting Tuesday evening. Indeed, these days when so many libraries are imperiled, the truly important thing is that this landmark library exists at all, regardless of what it is named! I have only wanted to emphasize in my comments here what I feel is at stake as someone who works on Parks as both an artist and intellectual, and who also worked very hard myself as a teen volunteer and St. Jude student leader in carrying on her legacy of youth work in this community in Montgomery, even though back then, I had absolutely no idea that I was so viscerally surrounded by her legacy and historical footprints (i.e. down the street from the Y in Cleveland Courts). After her passing in 2005, one of the three memorial services for Parks was held in Montgomery. When Louis Freeman, the African American pilot for the chartered flight, who had made history as the nation’s first black chief pilot, circled the city and tipped the left wing of the plane bearing Parks’s body away as a final salute to Montgomery. This gesture touches me very deeply and drives home the importance of Montgomery to her. Though Mrs. Parks moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1957, she always had a lot of love for Montgomery, the city where she had put her life on the line to help make better for future generations. We must always give the deep love that she had for her hometown right back to her, show our deepest appreciation for her global legacy, and ensure that it is taught to future generations in Montgomery and everywhere.


Riché Richardson
Associate Professor
Africana Studies and Research Center
Cornell University

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