Darlene McDonald: Burgess Owens distorts historical facts about Civil Rights Movement

It is grotesque to compare Rosa Parks to modern anti-vaxxers.

(Gene Herrick | AP photo) In this Feb. 22, 1956, photo, Rosa Parks is fingerprinted by police Lt. D.H. Lackey in Montgomery, Ala., after refusing to give up her seat on a bus for a white passenger on Dec. 1, 1955.

A recently penned opinion piece by U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens for Daily Wire entitled, “America’s New Civil Rights Movement” is at best, head-scratching.

Owens has lived through many of the nation’s transformative events of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus, he’s the point person on race and racism for the GOP. In this commentary, Owens uses that designation to highlight the heroic actions of Rosa Parks.

On December 1, 1955, Parks answered the call-to-action to challenge oppressive Jim Crow laws in the American South. Owens calls upon readers to channel Parks to spur a new movement of defiance against the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The one way to make mandates unnecessary is to get vaccinated. Therefore, a movement against vaccines that protect against debilitating and potentially deadly contagious viruses is in no way comparable to the movement to end the codification of racism against African Americans.

In the article, Owens tosses red meat to his base by falsely claiming that state-sponsored segregation was, “The [Democratic] Party’s Jim Crow laws.” He neglects to mention that many southerners were Democrats because they despised the Republican Party after the Civil War.

Parks risked abuse and death when she refused to give up her seat. Owens highlights the consequential impact of her defiance, but then equates it to standing against a want-to-be dictatorial government imposing vaccine mandates. This is a false equivalency.

Rosa Parks credited the images of the mutilated body of 14-year-old Emmett Till for spurring her into action. One child’s death was enough for her to say, “No More.” The current death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. exceeds 800,000. How many deaths will be enough for Burgess Owens to say, “No More”?

After Parks’ arrest, a 26-year-old new cleric named Martin Luther King Jr. was elected to lead the burgeoning movement. King spoke to a celebratory crowd that had gathered after its successful first day and said, “I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong. … If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.”

Owens writes that the genesis of Parks’ action was not “revolution but restoration.” The “restoration of rights granted by the Almighty and codified within the mission statement of His nation of freedom.”

Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the South between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Reconstruction was a 12-year period after the Civil War ended. Before that, enslaved men and women were denied unalienable rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Parks’ civil disobedience was not to restore, but to demand this nation live up to its creed “that all men are created equal.” Parks spurred a non-violent, direct-action revolution.

Owens concludes by glossing over the consequences to Parks and her community. He writes, “Within 13 months, Rosa Parks’ simple act of courage began the restoration of freedom to her community.”

Rosa Parks and her husband were forced to leave Alabama. Snipers shot at Black passengers on the integrated buses. The KKK bombed Black churches and the homes of King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

Owens’ understatements and incomprehensible distortions of historical facts about events of the Civil Rights Movement and other things throughout this piece leads one to question if he’s being intentionally intellectually dishonest.

Owens represents Utah’s 4th Congressional District, which includes school districts that have recent incidents of racism. Knowing this makes his comparison an even more grotesque abuse of his calling. The New American Civil Rights Movement is a continuation of the movement that began with Rosa Parks. The necessity for the work of that movement to continue is as strong today as it was in 1955.

Owens’ call for a “modern-day Montgomery Moment” against a government whose job it is to protect its citizens against enemies foreign, domestic and viral is not America’s New Civil Rights Movement, and it must find its own heroine.

Darlene McDonald is a Utah writer and the director of 1Utah Project, a new non-profit formed to encourage civic engagement and to combat disinformation. She’s been outspoken against racism in Utah’s public schools, efforts to weaken public education and the increased attacks on school boards meetings by aggressive right-wing parent and white supremacist groups.