Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali are both icons of the American Civil Rights era, however together they illustrate some of the complexities within this movement. Muhammad Ali was determined not to be who other people (mainly whites and the media) wanted him to be. Christened Cassius Clay he renamed himself Muhammad Ali in an expression of defiance to the white establishment, refusing to be the ‘white man’s nigger’. As an outspoken Muslim and member of the black militant Nation of Islam, he did not believe in catering to the white establishment to achieve equality. In direct contrast, Rosa Parks’ iconic image has received its iconic status because of her ability to conform to white ideals. Her image is non-threatening, and her role in the Civil Rights movement is presented passively. Her political engagement in grassroots activity is disregarded in popular memory and she is projected as a moral victim. Few are aware her refusal to move to the back of the bus was orchestrated by the NAACP. Furthermore she was chosen for this role precisely because her image would not offend and could not be tainted by whites. Claudette Colvin was the first person that was arrested for resisting bus segregation in Montgomery, however her image was not popularised because she was pregnant but unmarried aged seventeen. The NAACP knew this image would not appeal to white sensibilities and would rather serve to further the stereotype of black people as lusty, and so chose to reconstruct the event with Rosa Parks, a married elderly woman. Rosa Parks represented the moral victim that appealed to whites to support the black cause.
The two images I have chosen illustrate the different approaches to Civil Rights that the two icons represent. Muhammad Ali’s form of resistance was aggressive, he directly challenged the white establishment. His image as a fighter is iconic as much for his boxing as it is for his role in the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks’ image on the other hand represents her involvement passively. The NAACP worked within the system and promoted icons that would not intimidate whites but would encourage white support. Both images are iconic because of the wider struggle they represent. The images, whilst seemingly opposing, represent the struggle of identity for African Americans within the Civil Rights movement.