New Athens-Clarke County commissioner draws inspiration from Malcolm X
Promising progressive changes, Mariah Parker took oath of office holding landmark autobiography instead of bible
Mariah Parker, a 26-year-old University of Georgia doctoral student and newly-elected Athens-Clarke County Commissioner, stands before portraits of former elected officials inside Athens City Hall. Photo courtesy Raphaëla Alemán.
In a 1962 speech in Los Angeles, Malcolm X made perhaps his most powerful declaration about the state of black women.
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” Malcolm X said in the Los Angeles speech. “The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
On Monday, the 26-year-old University of Georgia doctoral student was sworn in as an Athens-Clarke County Commissioner. When Probate Judge Susan Tate swore Parker in as the District 2 commissioner, she didn’t use a Bible.
On the steps of the Athens City Hall, Parker cocked her right fist in the air and before taking the oath of office, placed her left hand on a well-worn copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” held by her mother Mattie Parker.
“They asked if they would like the Bible and I said no. My mother asked if there was a copy of the Constitution around. No,” Parker said. “I wanted Malcolm’s book. I think they saw it coming.”
Images of Parker’s swearing in, particularly her towering Angela Davis afro, have flooded social media this week.
Published in 1965, just weeks after his assassination, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," is regarded by many critics and scholars as one of the most important autobiographies of the 20th century.
The book, written with Alex Haley, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for “Roots,” mapped Malcolm X’s conversions from a poor boy who saw his father murdered, to a drugged-addled jailed criminal, to the face of one of the most misunderstood religious orders in the country, to a vocal civil rights leader who would ultimately become a martyr.
“Having seen the transformation of someone who came through a difficult background to become vocal and push conversations on race in a radical way is powerful,” Parker said. “Then he shifted course and saw race in a different lens as he got older. And the fact that he was arguably killed for his politics. These are things that I want to embrace.”
Parker, who is getting her doctorate in language and literacy education, said she didn’t finish reading the landmark autobiography until about a year ago, but was struck by the parallels. She grew up poor in rural Kentucky. Overcame substance abuse. Struggled with mental health issues.
“I was very lucky to break away from some of the generational patterns, by going to college and getting out of the town,” said Parker. “But I struggled and I thought people only looked at me as having nothing to offer.”
A progressive, who describes herself as openly queer, Parker was motivated to run for office because of what she saw was a need for vocal leadership.
She beat Taylor Pass by 13 votes running on a platform of economic justice, reducing poverty and discrimination, affordable housing, fair wage jobs, youth development, criminal justice reform and marijuana reform.
She will have her hands full.
District 2, which she now represents, is an economically struggling swath of east Athens that lacks some of the same amenities that other parts of town enjoyed.
“Malcolm’s willingness to uneditedly speak about black people at large, are qualities that I want to embody,” Parker said. “To speak out when I see things going wrong.”
Ernie Suggs is an enterprise reporter covering race and culture for the AJC since 1997. A 1990 graduate of N.C. Central University and a 2009 Harvard University Nieman Fellow, he is also the former vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists. His obsession with Prince, Spike Lee movies, Hamilton and the New York Yankees is odd.