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A summer of reflection — and fears of history repeating itself

The mugshots of Rosa Parks and Donald Trump could not offer more different lessons

The Rosa Parks statue in the Capitol's Statuary Hall in June 2021.
The Rosa Parks statue in the Capitol's Statuary Hall in June 2021. (CQ Roll Call)

It is a striking image, a fearless visage staring at the camera while holding a sign with booking number “7053” chest high. “Beautiful rebel” are the words used to describe Rosa Parks on the coaster that I’ve decided will never cushion a bottle or glass.

Another mugshot has made the news this summer though I don’t think even his supporters would label the subject “beautiful.” “Defiant” is the better adjective for the Donald Trump that looks out from the photo taken when he was booked in Fulton County, Ga., the first mug shot of an American president. Controversial? Yes. But after being charged with a litany of felonies that stem from his and his allies’ alleged efforts to reverse Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia, was there a choice?

While it has been impossible to escape the image now gracing X, formerly known as Twitter, T-shirts and more, the first — the quiet, determined woman — has been stripped of its radical origins, if it’s remembered at all by those who praise the former president’s close-up.

When and if children learn about Rosa Parks and her role in the civil rights movement, the lesson is usually recounted through a gauzy lens that portrays her as a respectable seamstress who just got tired one day instead of the tireless NAACP activist whose refusal to move to the back of the bus was an inevitable and deliberate part of a movement, the continuing fight against the social order of segregation, white supremacy and police brutality that ruled the day.

It wasn’t only Parks in the fight. She has been elevated because of America’s tendency to flatten and simplify, to spoon-feed harsh historical truths in a narrative of happily-ever-afters. In fact, the famous Parks mugshot was taken, not in 1955 during her initial arrest, but in February 1956, when Parks and many other activists were targeted by the city in an attempt to break the back of a boycott that was getting results and making Montgomery leaders “uncomfortable.”

Discomfort, though, was part of the rebellion — the only way to change the status quo.

The ceramic square is a souvenir collected during my visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, one stop in my summer of visits to civil rights museums, the chance to broaden my own education about American history.

While attending a conference in Birmingham, Ala., where I had toured that city’s Civil Rights Institute the year before and, years before that, had gotten lost in reflection in the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four Black girls were murdered, I traveled to Montgomery. There, The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration holds space on a site where Black people had labored in bondage. Outdoors at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, hundreds of monuments symbolize the victims of the racial terrorism of lynching.

Could the exhibits, as informative as they were, make visitors anything but “comfortable,” a feeling that has come to be the measuring stick for what kind and how much history is taught in American schools? Could white children, I should specify, be made to feel uncomfortable, because concern for the feelings of children of color, particularly Black children, are nowhere to be found in vague restrictions that have made cautious, underpaid teachers pull books off shelves and look over their shoulders?

The answer, of course, is yes. As a Black woman long removed from elementary school history, I still was moved to silence and occasionally tears. But those reactions, those emotions were wonderful as well as terrible because distortion and erasure benefit no one, and information has the ability to reveal and liberate.

Facing the truth leads to an emotion not considered in these ridiculous laws — empathy. It’s as though all kinds of people recognizing the injustice in a police officer’s murder of the very human human being who was George Floyd was something that had to be squashed. These sites on America’s civil rights trail offer context on why that graphic example of man’s inhumanity to man should come as no surprise.

This summer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared before a crowd mourning the racist killing of three of his Jacksonville constituents, close to the 60th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He called the perpetrator “a major-league scumbag,” so fearful was he of describing the young white man as the racist his writings revealed him to be.

DeSantis was booed by folks who saw right through the performative empathy of a man who revs up crowds bleating about “where ‘woke’ goes to die” and revels in promises to go to Washington and “start slitting throats” in the federal bureaucracy.

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is an alum of Little Rock’s historic Central High, where troops were sent by President Dwight Eisenhower to defend Black students navigating a gauntlet of violent white folks standing between them and an education. She can’t claim that history when the living members of the nine who endured and prevailed called out her efforts to prevent today’s students from learning the full story.

The anniversary of the 1963 march would once have been a no-brainer opportunity for politicians to issue lofty statements, sincere or not. In 2023, though, mostly crickets from a lineup of GOP presidential hopefuls, some of whom also neglected to note the Jacksonville killings.

Are they afraid of alienating voters who would hold those small gestures against them?

Wannabe GOP candidate Vivek Ramaswamy goes further, calling Democratic Congresswoman Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and author and anti-racist activist Ibram X. Kendi “modern grand wizards of the modern KKK,” and denying the existence of white supremacists, a disgraceful slap in the face to Jacksonville’s mourning families. He’s smart enough to know the modern-day Klan and white supremacists are alive, well and “standing by” for the man he has called “the best president of the 21st century.”

This summer, I saw Ramaswamy’s sentiments echoed in quotes on museum walls — denials, deflections and declarations that somehow those calling out injustice were partly to blame for grotesque acts of retaliation and retribution.

What he considers out-of-the-box provocation is neither new nor original, though the 38-year-old is getting the attention he so cravenly seeks.

That attention is what Trump lives for, and the hawking of mugshot merchandise is a sign of a fraudulent tough guy out for no one but himself.

The true rebel had a vision for everyone in America. Parks looked straight ahead, into the camera and the future, and could see a country that did not exist — yet.

Beautiful indeed.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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