Rosa Parks, or: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

A little Sunday morning inspiration. Charles Blow, in the NYTimes:

On the verge of the 100th anniversary of her birth this Monday comes a fascinating new book, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” by Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College professor. It argues that the romanticized, children’s-book story of a meek seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history in a moment of uncalculated resistance is pure mythology.

As Theoharis points out, “Rosa’s family sought to teach her a controlled anger, a survival strategy that balanced compliance with militancy.”

Parks was mostly raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather, a follower of Marcus Garvey, often sat vigil on the porch with a rifle in case the Klan came. She sometimes sat with him because, as the book says she put it, “I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer.”

When she was a child, a young white man taunted her. In turn, she threatened him with a brick. Her grandmother reprimanded her as “too high-strung,” warning that Rosa would be lynched before the age of 20. Rosa responded, “I would be lynched rather than be run over by them.” …

She spent nearly two decades before the bus incident struggling, organizing and agitating for civil rights, mostly as the secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., branch of the N.A.A.C.P. But it wasn’t until Parks was in her 40s and attended an integrated workshop that she found “for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society.” This didn’t mean that she was eager for integration, though. She was later quoted as saying that what people sought “was not a matter of close physical contact with whites, but equal opportunity.”

And Parks was by no means the first person to perform an act of civil disobedience on a bus. She was very much aware of many of the people whose similar actions had preceded her own, even raising money for some of their defense funds. She also encouraged others to commit these acts of civil disobedience…

47 replies
  1. 1
    Keith G says:

    Way back when I began my first career (teacher US hist/gov/econ), I was struct by the difference between Mrs. Park’s delivered persona and the actual truth of her life.

    I put it down, in part, to the “Disney-facation” of the American narrative – keep it simple and avoid that which is unpleasant.

  2. 2
    stibbert says:

    cheers for not-meek Ms. Parks, & if you google-search for images on “obama parks bus”, you’ll find that her courage stays with us.

  3. 3
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    @Keith G: Disney-fication is a good term. Much like MLK’s efforts against poverty and war. I can’t recall where I first heard the full(er) story of Rosa Parks. Maybe “Eyes on the Prize”?

  4. 4
    Raven says:

    Melissa Harris Perry noted that she often packed. I guess Charles notes that as well.

  5. 5
    gene108 says:

    @Keith G:

    I wouldn’t call it the “Disney-facation” of the incident.

    I think the NAACP, at the time, played it up as an act of spontaneous rebellion, in order to move their civil rights agenda into action.

    The protest was planned out, but if the NAACP came out and said, “well we were planning to protest discrimination in busing and decided Mrs. Parks would be good person to rile up the public” it wouldn’t have played as well in the presses at the time or even today, as a tired seamstress “standing up” to an unjust society.

    I think two generations removed from the bus boycott, the public can probably handle the truth about how well planned out the incident was.

    I think the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s there was still enough tension about racial integration and equality that society couldn’t handle the truth.

  6. 6
    Raven says:

    “enough tension about racial integration and equality that society couldn’t handle the truth. ”

    Yea, that’s all behind us now.

  7. 7
    gene108 says:

    @Raven:

    I think the young ‘uns of today are a lot more tolerant of racial differences than a generation or more ago. I think they can handle the truth better than any previous generation.

  8. 8
    Raven says:

    @gene108: “It’s too soon to tell”.

    Chou En Lai

  9. 9
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    OT, but the GOP fights a rear-guard skirmish against itself:

    “There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” said Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads, the “super PAC” creating the new project. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”

    Karl Rove thinks the crazies are losing them seats. Bwahahahaha.

    I hope this gets front-paged at some point.

  10. 10
    Chet says:

    @gene108: “I think the NAACP, at the time, played it up as an act of spontaneous rebellion, in order to move their civil rights agenda into action.”

    Something the racist right made a point of bellowing from the rooftops while losing their shit over Parks’ laying in state in the Capitol Rotunda after she died.

  11. 11
    PurpleGirl says:

    Ms. Parks was raised to be silk-coated steel. She had to face adverse conditions but still fight them. I don’t remember what we were taught in school about her, but a few years ago the stories then being told about her being an NAACP member and of being part of the planning for civil rights actions made for a more interesting woman.

    I’m sure that when she arrived wherever, she proudly joined the NAACP team.

  12. 12
    amk says:

    @Chet: awesome butthurt there

    The adulation of Rosa Parks is just another chapter in the lemming-like rush to destruction whites everywhere appear to have joined.

  13. 13
    JGabriel says:

    Keith G:

    Way back when I began my first career (teacher US hist/gov/econ), I was struct by the difference between Mrs. Park’s delivered persona and the actual truth of her life.

    I put it down, in part, to the “Disney-facation” of the American narrative

    Maybe there’s a bit of that in it, but I suspect it was more politically motivated than that. For her Rosa Parks’ story to strike a chord among whites in the fifties, she had to be someone they couldn’t write off as one of those Negroes who was always causing trouble and riling up the rest of them — so she couldn’t be presented that way, either.

    Thus, the “children’s-book story of a meek seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history in a moment of uncalculated resistance.”

    .

  14. 14
    JGabriel says:

    @arguingwithsignposts:

    Karl Rove thinks the crazies are losing them seats.

    Drunk with power, Rove went to bed with the crazies. And now he’s waking up with regrets.

    Funny how that happens.

    .

  15. 15
    aimai says:

    That NYT article is just precious. Rove is going to make money coming and going–he made money losing the last election for the Billionaires and now he’s taking more money to try not to lose the next set. This is like hiring a guy to trap the mice in your house and then having to re-hire him after he botches the job. He’s “coining the money.” Also: catch the necessary Authoritarian Follower line in the following quote–as long as you can cite a “rule” you are ok, apparently.

    The Conservative Victory Project will be a super PAC operating independently of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. It will disclose the names of donors and raise money separately from American Crossroads, officials said, because some donors were uncomfortable about aggressively weighing in on Republican-vs.-Republican fights.

    “It is a delicate and sensitive undertaking,” Mr. Law said. “Our approach will be to institutionalize the Buckley rule: Support the most conservative candidate who can win.”

  16. 16
    Jason says:

    gene108: The story I heard was that the NAACP actually auditioned a number of women to be the Montgomery bus boycott figurehead, and it was actually going to be a different woman, but it turned out that woman had had a child out of wedlock when she was 14 and hence wouldn’t be sympathetic enough, so Rosa Parks ended up getting the gig. Unfortunately, in order for he to be useful, they had to deny that she was a professional activist (which she was), and that her political association were extremely “pink” if not outright red (which they were), and that the whole thing was orchestrated by the NAACP in Washington (which it was), and hence the spontaneous protest of “a simple seamstress tired after a hard day’s work” narrative was concocted by the NAACP itself.

    Ironically the same thing that liberals had to deny during the fifties are really important to acknowledge today, now that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King have been accepted into what I like to call the American Marble-Man Pantheon, that roster of god-like Great People bleached of human failings that appears in middle school civics textbooks. America refuses to acknowledge just how much the most effective of its social reformers were the hardest of the hard-left DFHs. If the middle-schoolers were allowed to know this, they might get the idea that being a hard-left DFH might not be such a bad thing after all, or even that it takes a DFH to actually get anything done in this place.

  17. 17
    geg6 says:

    @Jason:

    Yeah, Rubin and Hoffman really got a lot of shit done. Hard lefties are so effective!

  18. 18
    WereBear says:

    @Keith G: I put it down, in part, to the “Disney-facation” of the American narrative – keep it simple and avoid that which is unpleasant.

    Not only that, but it’s the pastel-ing of strong women.

  19. 19
    MikeJ says:

    Political battles are won by the side with the better story to tell. Too many times the left depends on “fairness” or “whats right” instead of story telling. Good to be on the winning side in this case.

  20. 20
    JGabriel says:

    @geg6:

    Yeah, Rubin and Hoffman really got a lot of shit done.

    Rubin and Hoffman were more showmen than they were activists.

    .

  21. 21
    Raven says:

    @geg6: @geg6: Bite it.

  22. 22

    @geg6:
    “lots of important work was done by the far-left”
    “some on the far left did not get anything done”
    CHECKMATE LEFTIES

  23. 23
    Donut says:

    @MikeJ:

    Yes, today we call it “branding” or “marketing”.

    We could do a much better job of it on the Left, in the down-ticket races. The President, on the other hand, kinda has figured that stuff out, I think. I hope the rebooted OfA will help other Democrats figure some of these things out.

  24. 24
    geg6 says:

    @JGabriel:

    True, but in my experience, that’s all the far lefties are today. When I was young, I was inclined to that far lefty position. Until I grew up and realized, much like Rosa Parks, MLK, and organizations like the NAACP and other civil rights groups of the 60s, that being effective was more important than my ego about my leftiness was. YMMV.

  25. 25
    geg6 says:

    @Raven:

    Seriously? You, of all people, think Rubin and Hoffman and all the far left ilk of the 60s, the people who set us up for ridicule and the political desert for at least a generation, are worthy of my respect and unworthy of sarcasm? Seriously?

  26. 26
    JPL says:

    The AJC has an article about a new documentary about a person who was attacked trying to register blacks in Mississippi in 1965. link As a 21-year-old Freedom Rider in the heart of Mississippi, Saltzman was attacked outside a courtroom. His attacker was a Ku Klux Klansman, the son of one of the most notorious white supremacists of the civil rights movement. The documentary is about meeting the same person decades later and trying to come to terms with different ideologies. The former klan member’s father was convicted of killing Medgar Evers.
    I hope to be able to go see it on Tuesday.

  27. 27
    hep kitty says:

    I encourage everyone to watch Institutional Bias and Racism on CSPAN

  28. 28
    WereBear says:

    @geg6: Seriously? You, of all people, think Rubin and Hoffman and all the far left ilk of the 60s, the people who set us up for ridicule and the political desert for at least a generation, are worthy of my respect and unworthy of sarcasm? Seriously?

    Oh, yes, if everyone had only worn sober business suits, the wingnuts would have said, “Yes! The sense of your arguments have persuaded me!”

    There were plenty of far left spokespeople with admirable professions and respectable dress and cogent argument who came to prominence at that time. Except none o their names come to mind…

  29. 29
    MikeJ says:

    @WereBear:

    There were plenty of far left spokespeople with admirable professions and respectable dress and cogent argument who came to prominence at that time. Except none o their names come to mind…

    Martin Luther King Jr.

  30. 30
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    @MikeJ: Well, we saw what happened to him, unfortunately.

  31. 31
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: Malcolm X then.

  32. 32
    arguingwithsignposts says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I don’t think that’s countering my comment. Would RFK be next?

    ETA: I wasn’t disagreeing with the fact that there are examples, merely pointing out that MLK met a bad end.

  33. 33
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: Look, if you’re going to be all picky and historically accurate, I am not really sure how to handle it. I think I will go sulk in a corner now.

  34. 34
    MikeJ says:

    Put me squarely in the anti giant puppet camp. People wearing suits got a lot more accomplished than the people living up to every nasty stereotype of the left did.

  35. 35
    MikeJ says:

    @arguingwithsignposts: Nobody killed the yippies because they were more helpful to right alive.

  36. 36
    geg6 says:

    @arguingwithsignposts:

    And he also understood that change is gradual and that posturing for posturing’s sake is a loser’s game. He pushed us to go left, but in a way that made it more likely that people would follow him in that direction. There are few true blue far lefties who are that practical.

  37. 37
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @geg6: Eugene V. Debs.

  38. 38
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @geg6:

    posturing for posturing’s sake is a loser’s game.

    Of course, posturing for posturing’s sake is useless, but I find it rather ironic that you would head down this road in a thread discussing the fact that Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired lady who chose to sit down but rather a committed activist who “postured” in a particular way in order to get arrested a provoke a response.

  39. 39
    hells littlest angel says:

    So Rosa Parks was not a sweet, meek little old lady who was just too doggone tired to stand. Is there anything I learned about the world as a child that wasn’t bullshit?

    My guess is that this myth was generated to counter the rise of the bad scary Black Panthers and other intemperate revolutionaries. “You can catch more civil rights with honey than with vinegar,” or something.

  40. 40
    WereBear says:

    @MikeJ: My point is that it was the wingnuts who seized on the Yippes as “the face of the left.”

    If it wasn’t those clowns, it would have been other clowns. And there’s nothing wrong with clowns. I’m just saying Abbie Hoffman, in a suit, would not be talked about today.

    Wasn’t his strength.

  41. 41
    Maude says:

    Why would anyone think that a meek woman would sit at the front of the bus?
    She took her life in her hands when she sat down.

  42. 42
    Gwangung says:

    It’s not either/or. Both pragmatics and radicals are needed. The pragmatics to take that small step that is allowed for progress,and the radicals to keep pushing for further progress so pragmatics can take that extra step.

  43. 43
    Patricia Kayden says:

    I thought the movie, “The Rosa Parks Story” did a good job of dispelling the myths surrounding Ms. Parks’ bus protest.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rosa_Parks_Story

    Plus, Ms. Parks, was not the first Black woman to protest in such a manner. Here’s the story of Irene Morgan, who did the same thing on a Greyhound bus 11 years earlier than Ms. Parks.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irene_Morgan

  44. 44
    Keith G says:

    @MikeJ: Well, its seems that throughout history that we need both bomb throwers and deal makers.

  45. 45
    Brachiator says:

    @Jason:

    Ironically the same thing that liberals had to deny during the fifties are really important to acknowledge today, now that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King have been accepted into what I like to call the American Marble-Man Pantheon, that roster of god-like Great People bleached of human failings that appears in middle school civics textbooks. America refuses to acknowledge just how much the most effective of its social reformers were the hardest of the hard-left DFHs. If the middle-schoolers were allowed to know this, they might get the idea that being a hard-left DFH might not be such a bad thing after all, or even that it takes a DFH to actually get anything done in this place.

    There is no great secret to the larger story of the NAACP strategy behind Rosa Parks’ actions. And it is not simply a matter of middle-schoolers “not being allowed” to know the truth. Most people prefer the easy-to-digest shorthand for a more layered understanding of history. The quick and simple story goes down faster, and besides, real history is sooooo boring.

    Equally bogus is the simplistic assertion that Civil Rights figures were “hardest of the left DFHs.” And many of these folks were not social reformers, but were a mix of ordinary and extraordinary people using every means at their disposal to throw off oppression.

    As an aside, it’s too bad that we don’t have a more comprehensive oral history of the people who were on the ground during the pivotal period from the 1940s through the 1960s to flesh out the various “official histories” of the era.

    ETA: Some years ago, I was privileged to meet and briefly speak to Mrs Parks at a book signing and reception. There had been a long line of people patiently waiting, a good mix of adults and school children. It’s not often that you get a chance to meet one of your heroes and someone who helped change history. I remember her as a small woman of great bearing and dignity.

  46. 46
    Brachiator says:

    @hells littlest angel:

    My guess is that this myth was generated to counter the rise of the bad scary Black Panthers and other intemperate revolutionaries. “You can catch more civil rights with honey than with vinegar,” or something.

    Your timeline needs some adjustment. The scary Black Panthers were much later.

    Black folk scared the shit out of white folk when they asked for intemperate revolutionary stuff like the right to vote, the right to attend a good school, the right to sit at a lunch counter and order a goddam sandwich. Or, as with Rosa Parks, the right to be able to sit anywhere on a bus, and not to have to get up and move to the rear when a white person got on.

    And one of the biggest myths that had to be countered was the lazy perception of masses of white people that black Americans, especially in the South, were a dull, lazy, indolent mass who probably didn’t deserve much and who were getting the best deal that they could from benevolent white folk.

    Rosa Parks was the face of quiet dignity in a nation that was always eager to try to slap down uppity blacks.

    Not like we have anything like that today. /snark

  47. 47
    JWL says:

    @Keith G: And yet, the simple-simon story of two feet aching to get home beautifully serves to complement the abiding moral, the root of the matter, rather than diminish it. After all, for every Rosa Parks there are always (10? 100?) persons who go with the flow.

    That story was spun white Americans anyway. Most could not have cared less about black Americans rights, or any shade, for that matter, and the segregationists ruled congress. But their feet ached on their way home, too. It was they for whom the story resonated, and that because it was simple. Had they instead been presented Rosa Parks as being a workaday militant “making a statement”, they would have dismissed it offhand, and soon forgot all about it.

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