On the evening of August 30, 1994, a young drug addict broke down the rear door of a home in central Detroit. Back then, during the peak of the Great American Crime Wave, such a story was depressingly familiar. Crime was so ubiquitous, such burglaries rarely made the headlines, even when they turned violent. This crime, however, was different.
The elderly widow who lived in the house discovered a drunk who claimed to have chased an intruder away. He demanded a tip. She went upstairs for her pocketbook and gave him three dollars. He followed her, demanding more. When she refused, he hit her. “I tried to defend myself and grabbed his shirt,” she later recalled. “Even at 81 years of age, I felt it was my right to defend myself.” Hitting her again and shaking her violently, he threatened worse. Terrified, she gave him $53.
The crime generated outrage because when the intruder Joseph Skipper entered, he recognized his victim. “Hey, aren’t you Rosa Parks?” Skipper asked. The civil rights legend answered “yes,” but it didn’t help. After the crime, it took 50 minutes before the police arrived. The street justice, however, was swift. “All of the thugs on the Westside went looking for him,” one friend recalled, “and they beat the hell out of him.”
As the black community erupted in recriminations, debating whether Skipper’s crime reflected a values crisis among African-American youth, an unlikely benefactor stepped in. According to Parks’ biographer Douglas Brinkley, General Motors quietly helped her pay for a high-rise condo at Riverfront Towers in Detroit. “She said that GM didn't do so for publicity purposes. Just a good deed,” Brinkley reports.
This happy ending to a terrible 1990s episode united two icons of 1950s America, reflecting the kind of all-American decency we no longer associate with corporations – yet need today. In the 1950s, General Motors was the quintessential American corporation, epitomized by the misquoted expression “what’s good for GM is good for America.” GM executives were the ultimate “Men in Gray Flannel Suits,” middle managers for whom doing their jobs was profitable and patriotic. GM autoworkers were the shock troops of America’s great post-World War II achievement, establishing the world’s first mass middle class civilization. America’s consensus culture united the bosses, the bossed, their wives, and their kids. America’s Republic of Something stood for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, providing a social script propping up consensus institutions including the family, the school, the church. Even when deviating from the script, most derived comfort from the certainties and shared goals.
Alas, racism, sexism, and other bigotries provided some of the glue that connected this Republic of Something and some of the fuel that ran it. In 1955, Rosa Parks, was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, often victimized by these American pathologies. One December afternoon, she refused to yield her seat to a white man and move to the “colored” area in the back of the bus, as three other blacks sitting next to her had just done. Years later, rejecting the part of the legend that she was old and tired, she emphasized, “I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Rosa Parks’ act of defiance triggered a revolution. The resulting 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott by blacks who refused to ride in the back of the bus anymore, resulted in a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the city’s “Jim Crow” segregation laws, nearly bankrupted the bus company before the city surrendered, and produced a new leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. Parks lost her job at the Montgomery Fair Department store, and soon moved with her husband Raymond to Detroit. This granddaughter of slaves would be lionized by the US Congress as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” She became the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol when she died.
On the thirtieth anniversary of her great stand, Rosa Parks would say: “At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this. I certainly wouldn't change anything in my fight for freedom.” Not everything changed, of course. When her biographer Doug Brinkley contacted the bus driver from that day, seeking an interview, James F. Blake cursed him “in a racist rage.”
Nevertheless, Rosa Parks represents the glorious Republic of Everything that emerged, a country more open, more welcoming, more pluralistic, less racist, less sexist than Parks would ever have dared imagine. Tragically, amid all the blessed changes, America also lost something. Too many modern Americans languish in a Republic of Nothing, a place that lost its soul. Millions of Americans live lives of violence, drift, anger, alienation. General Motors is more often deemed an evil corporate predator than a bulwark of the American dream – and too often earns the contempt. Many GM workers have lost their jobs to robots or foreigners, and many still working the assembly line find their cost of living has outpaced their salaries – even with husbands and wives working.
During this presidential campaign, the nominees should be articulating a vision of their Republic of Something, defining a new American consensus, rooted in the best of the past while applying the newly acquired wisdom of the present to forge an exciting future. But as the new American nihilist, a demagogue who contradicts himself mid-riff, Donald Trump represents a different dimension of the Republic of Nothing, rallying the alienated, indulging their anger, hoping to divide and conquer rather than inspire and heal. And, too frequently, Hillary Clinton, an heiress to Rosa Parks’ greatness, is so busy playing to the Republic of Everything, stoking her coalition of different identity groups, she fails to forge one nation out of many.
Perhaps learning about that one, unsung, gesture, that one “good deed,” from the big but not so bad GM to the little lady who made a great revolution, can remind us of the great promise that is America, and our joint challenge to welcome an array of individual and group voices, expressing themselves to the fullest, while harmonizing them all into a powerful national chorus that brings out our liberal democratic best, not our worst.