November 8, 2005

Since her death, pundits and politicians have all spoken about Parks’ life – incorrectly.
Field Report, Josh Eidelson, Yale University, Nov. 7, 2005

Since her death, pundits and politicians have all spoken about Parks’ life – incorrectly.

By Josh Eidelson, Yale University

In the two weeks since Rosa Parks’ death, just about everyone has had something nice to say about her courageous refusal to yield to bigotry on the bus. Unfortunately, much of what’s been said by politicians or journalists has been deeply misleading or flat-out false. It’s reinforced the 50-year-old myth that Parks was an apolitical woman who one day ambled into history out of simple physical exhaustion and then promptly ambled back out of it again. Such a myth only encourages needless knee-jerk skepticism of contemporary activists who are public about strong political convictions, work through political organizations, and formulate careful media strategies – all of which describe the real Rosa Parks, not the Rosa Parks most Americans remember. While some have gotten the history right over the past two weeks, too many people who should know better have instead made statements perpetuating the most stubborn myths about who Parks was and what she did. A few of the major ones:

Bill Frist: “Rosa Parks’ bold and principled refusal to give up her seat was not an intentional attempt to change a nation, but a singular act aimed at restoring the dignity of the individual.”

Parks’ December 1, 1955 civil disobedience was certainly bold and principled, but it was in no way singular. Parks had already been kicked off of buses several times in the decade before for her unwillingness to sacrifice her seat based of the color of her skin. That day in December wasn’t even the first time she had faced down that particular bus driver. Long before that arrest, Parks had also actively been training others in non-violent resistance as the founder and adult advisor of the NAACP Youth Council, whose members, according to historian Aldon Morris, “took rides and sat in the front seats of segregated buses, then returned to the Youth Council to discuss their acts of defiance with Mrs. Parks” (Morris explored this at length in his book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement). All of these pre-meditated actions were aimed at restoring the dignity of the individual by changing a nation whose complicity in the face of bigotry denied it.

Bill Clinton: “This time, Rosa’s War was fought by Martin Luther King’s rules, civil disobedience, peaceful resistance.”

Though King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks and other civil rights activists were already versed in the principles of non-violence resistance. Like King, Parks studied non-violent protest at the Highlander School in Tennessee, an integrated movement center dedicated to empowering the oppressed to effect social change through collective action. Highlander Trainer Septima Clark recalled that it was there that Parks “talked … out” the sketch of her December 1955 arrest, and committed that “I’m not going to move out of that seat.” E.D. Nixon declined requests that he lead the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, which would lead the boycott, because he thought a minister would be a more effective spokesman. That was when activists decided to approach Martin Luther King.

Mitch McConnell: “Rosa Parks did not set out to become a hero on the evening of December 1, 1955 … it was not inevitable that the struggle would start on that day, in that town, lit by one woman’s courage and devotion.”

The struggle was already well underway. Much of that struggle has been obscured from historical memory, particularly the parts involving long meetings, arduous planning, and formidable internal tensions. Two years before the Montgomery bus boycott, Blacks in Baton Rouge successfully overcame the resistance of bus drivers to partial integration through a mass boycott which provided a model for King and Ralph Abernathy. For four decades before the Montgomery boycott, the NAACP had been organizing trail-blazing legal and educational campaigns for civil rights in the face of violent retaliation. Parks herself had been secretary of the local NAACP since 1943 and secretary of the Alabama State Conference of NAACP branches since the late ‘40s.

New York Times: “That moment on the Cleveland Avenue bus also turned a very private woman into a reluctant symbol and torchbearer in the quest for racial equality and of a movement that became increasingly organized and sophisticated in making demands and getting results.”

Parks was reluctant about being turned into a symbol. But she showed little reluctance, though, in bearing the torch for civil rights. By the time Parks’ 1955 arrest brought her new national attention, she had already taken on the burdens and opportunities of organizational leadership.

What would catch her by surprise was the raft of stubborn myths about her. “My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me,” she later told one interviewer, “and not just that day.” “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” she wrote, “but that isn’t true … the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” It’s a shame, in the wake of her death to see the same myths repeated which so bothered her for much of her life: that she was an apolitical seamstress who was too tired to get up; that her action spontaneously and effortlessly generated a movement; that her choice to resist was courageous because it was unmeditated. These myths are hurting the movement by obscuring the need for well-planned strategic actions with organizational support. Now that Parks is no longer able to call out these myths for what they are, it becomes that much greater a responsibility for the rest of us.

Josh Eidelson is a senior in Yale’s BA/ MA program in Political Science.  He writes about politics as a columnist for the Yale Daily News and on his blog.

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