Is everybody picking on Rosa Parks?
If she was tired then, she must surely be tired now. Forty-eight years ago this month, Alabama seamstress Rosa Parks took a seat in history, touching off a legal battle - and a 381-day bus boycott - that proved pivotal to the American civil rights movement.
Nearly a half century later, Ms. Parks is in court again - not to fight for her rights, but to defend her name.
Parks is suing rap duo OutKast for naming a song after her on its 1998 album "Aquemini." Last week, the US Supreme Court cleared the way for her to proceed with the lawsuit, which claims the song uses her name to sell a product she does not endorse.
This is not the first time the civil rights pioneer has taken a stand against popular culture's appropriation of her legacy. Last year, Parks boycotted the NAACP Image Awards, at which a movie about her life was celebrated, to protest another nominated film, "Barbershop," in which a character makes what Parks called "hurtful jokes" about her status as a black icon.
The ensuing flap has left some Americans raised on tales of Parks's heroism wondering: Why is this venerable icon suddenly under siege?
"Rosa Parks' legacy is in danger," says Doreen Loury, a professor of African-American studies at Arcadia University in Philadelphia. "Not because of its mention in popular movies and song, but because so few Americans who can recognize the great lady's face on a poster, have any idea what legal, political, and personal struggles put her there."
Partly, historians say, Parks's discomfort with these portrayals resembles that of other unintentional celebrities. But Parks's struggles also bring up race issues that are anything but black and white. Her renown spans the country. Her story - or a version of it, anyway - will be taught in almost every school in America. She is commonly promoted, often by white teachers, as a role model for black students.
It stands to reason, says Thomas Ross, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in race issues, that African-American artists who grew up on her story would need to grapple with it - even to an extent that might appear a kind of cultural blasphemy.
Dr. Loury believes that black Americans should be suspicious of figures white America has embraced as "black icons." In Parks' case, she says, that skepticism is justified, not by the woman herself, but because the stories most often taught about her in school are a whitewash.
Parks was not just "tired" when she sat at the front of that bus, historians agree. She volunteered for the NAACP. She knew its lawyers were waiting for a case with which to test Montgomery's segregation laws. And when they came to bail her out of jail, she answered their call.
Besides, others point out, it's not clear that the artists in question are picking on Parks. Apart from a pair of lines in the "Rosa Parks" chorus - "Ah ha, hush that fuss/ Everybody move to the back of the bus" - the song contains no reference to her, dwelling instead on the popularity of its singers and their fears that such fame is transient.
The "Barbershop" scene, by contrast, is an explicit critique of Parks' iconization by mainstream America. In it, Eddie, a crusty old barber, argues that plenty of African-Americans took courageous stands on buses before Parks did, but that she got the publicity - and the place in history - because she was a secretary at the NAACP. "There's three things that black people gotta tell the truth about," he says. "One, Rodney King shoulda got ... beat for driving drunk.... Two, O.J. did it. And three, Rosa Parks ain't do nothing but sit ... down."
Dr. Ross says there's now a double standard at work in both popular culture and academic life about who can say what regarding race - and he's not sure that's a bad thing. If a white artist like Sting were to use "the n-word" in a song, the public outcry would be deafening (as Latina star Jennifer Lopez discovered a few years ago) - but the word is ubiquitous in rap music by African-Americans. In academia too, he says, there's a pervasive sense that it's a minority group's prerogative to criticize its own.
Loury says it's her impression that, far from disrespecting Parks, OutKast's song points out "that 'negroes' have gotten so complacent that if they don't remember Rosa Parks, then ha ha, they're going to the back of the bus."