On Rosa Parks and the 104th Anniversary of her Birth

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As we recognize the birthday and life of Rosa Parks, let me highlight two points that are not commonly discussed when we think of Rosa Parks. First of all, she died in poverty. While she had collected speaker fees for her public engagements, she had donated those speaker fees to create the Rosa Parks College Fund in 1980. She also wrote two books, Rosa Parks: My Life (1992) and Quiet Strength (1995), she moved out of her home in Detroit after being robbed and assaults in 1995, and moved into a high-rise apartment. Inexplicable, her money ran out in 2002 and she was sent an eviction noticed. After a church agreed to pay her rent and publicity embarrassed the apartment complex owners, she was granted free rent for the remainder of her life. She died in 2005. My question is, why was it a private church congregation that had to pay her rent? Why was it that a private housing corporation had to give her free rent for life? Is she not the “First Lady of Civil Rights”? Is she not the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”? Would America let a former US President, Vice President or First Lady be evicted? How hard would it have been at some point between the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and her death on October 24, 2005, would it have been for Congress to grant her a government pension? As an American, and in my opinion, I find her death in poverty a national embarrassment.

Secondly, people often question why I include Native American and African-American events and people on my blog as well as in my same-titled book, This Day in Genocide. After all, it’s not the same thing as the Holocaust, right? Of course, some of my Turkish, Caucus, and Middle Easter friends wonder why I include Armenia too. Conversely, Russians deny the Caucus Circassian genocide. And, too, some of my North African subscribers have quested my inclusion of Darfur. I suppose the French elites at Credit Lyon wonder if the Rwandan Genocide ever happened, and, certainly, I remember being told by a young Serb while waiting for a train in Budapest that, “what happens in Yugoslavia is an internal matter.” My point is this, why can’t we see our own national or demographic tribes acts of genocide, but can so readily recognize the fault of others? The definition of genocide that I use in class: systematic mass murder or dehumanization of a race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or ideology. The official definition of genocide is:

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Genocide scholars and frequent readers of This Day in Genocide may recall that the draft definition also included ideology, but the Soviets demanded ideology be stricken from the convention or they would have vetoed it. Personally, I think that makes the case that ideology ought to be included even more in the definition. But back to the American Genocides, while it is uncomfortable to talk about and it is charged with powerful emotions all around, if we break down the experiences of Native Americans and African-Americans, then the treatment of them by the United States and state governments is genocidal by definition. Both groups certainly were systematically mass murdered and dehumanization because of their race, ethnicity, and -in the case of Native Americans- religion as well. Systematic mass murder exemplified in contaminated blanket policy, constant warfare, illegal violation of Native American treaty-rights and the 14th Amendment, internment on reservations, “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group,” forced displacement (IDPs), etc., etc., etc.

As for the African-American experience, the United States has a history of “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” and forced migration as well as constant violations of the 14th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act of 18665, the Jim Crow Laws, Plessy v Ferguson, Poll taxes, Voting Tests, etc. Critics of my inclusion of US History in the history of genocide typically base their arguments on historical context, not meeting some undefined threshold for the definition of genocide, or simple the denial of facts. Some of my critics seem to take my position as anti-American or un-American, but I would suggest the same criticism has been used to bully Turks who admit their nation’s part in the Armenian Genocide, just as any Khmer, Hutu, Croat and Serbian is verbally or physically torn down for acknowledging their demographic tribes’ responsibility in the crime of genocide. Just because we’re embarrassed of our demographic tribes’ history does not make us responsible; we become responsible when we deny or diminish our history and the history of others. Gregory Stanton is perhaps the most regarded genocide scholar today, and he is most known for his Stages of Genocide theory. Whether we apply his original 8 Stages of Genocide or his updated 10 Stages of Genocide to the history of Native and African Americans, the result is the same. The Treatment of Native Americans and African-Americans by state and non-state actors was genocidal. And the fact that Rosa Parks died in poverty is a stain on the great ideals of this great nation. Similarly, the great scholars and enacting parties of reconstruction and reconciliation (such as Desmond Tutu as well as the various Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of Greensboro, Guatemala, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Cambodia, Australia, etc.) would all say that the first step is to acknowledge history and to acknowledge national responsibility -and in specific cases personal responsibility. Let’s not wait for the other lions of Civil Rights Movement die before we finally name what is our history, and that name is genocide.

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