The Myth of Rosa Parks.

Last week ari re-posted a smart blog entry on the Santa-fication of MLK, whose rough  edges had been made smooth in our civic memory. He was despised while he was living, and his stances also confounded other leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, but little of that makes it into school textbooks.

Rosa Parks has gotten the same soft-focus treatment from history: a tired seamstress refuses to give up her seat on the bus after being asked by the white bus driver and is tossed in jail. The real history is a little more complicated. Rosa Parks, who was a civil rights activist before the incident, was one of several women arrested for not giving up her seat — part of a deliberate campaign by black leaders agitating for desegregation. (For various reasons, none of the “optics” were right for other arrested women; Claudette Colvin, a teenager who was arrested, turned out to be pregnant.) E.D. Nixon, the president of the Birmingham NAACP chapter, felt that Parks was “beyond reproach,” and so it was settled: she would get on the bus, not give up her seat, be arrested, and the galvanized local black community would boycott. The rest is history.

Or was it? Duke’s Tim Tyson sets the record straight.

There’s a sense in which Mrs. Parks is very important to our post-civil rights racial narrative, because we really want a kind of sugar-coated civil rights movement that’s about purity and interracial non-violence. And so we don’t really want to meet the real Rosa Parks. We don’t, for example, want to know that in the late 1960s, Rosa Parks became a black nationalist and a great admirer of Malcolm X. I met Rosa Parks at the funeral of Robert F. Williams, who had fought the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina with a machine gun in the late 1950s and then fled to Cuba, and had been a kind of international revolutionary icon of black power. Ms. Parks delivered the eulogy at his funeral. She talks in her autobiography and says that she never believed in non-violence and that she was incapable of that herself, and that she kept guns in her home to protect her family. But we want a little old lady with tired feet. You may have noticed we don’t have a lot of pacifist white heroes. We prefer our black people meek and mild, I think. …

The cult of personality that grew up around Martin Luther King very quickly after the bus boycott, the media focused on him, and people like E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks were really pushed out of the limelight. In fact, I’ve read a letter from E.D. Nixon in 1958 where he was really explaining quite bitterly that he had gotten Ms. Parks out of jail, he had called a boycott, and that neither he nor Ms. Parks had been invited to the third anniversary celebration of the Montgomery bus boycott’s victory.

I think she was a seasoned political activist who knew that it was useful for her to seem apolitical. But the myth was only useful, really, in  1955 and 1956. But as the years go by, of course, historians didn’t do much better. And we expect historians to dig a little deeper than just the politics of image.Of course, I think there’s also a serious gender element to this in that when male politicians are quite forceful, you know, we like that. I think we prefer our women to be demure and modest and unassuming – and unaware.

Say word.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Word.

  • Aisha

    I was standing on the National Mall listening to the “We are One” concert and this came up. I was with my dad and I looked at him and asked “why do they keep up this myth?”. I think our children need to know that they don’t have to act by chance. It’s also dangerous to act by chance.

  • ladyfresshh

    My first reaction was why can’t we have our myths too?

    I see that decontructing why the myth evolved the way it did is also valuable

  • The truth is always more interesting than the myth, which is normally cooked up to fit into people’s preconceived notions i.e. the status quo anyway.

    Another issue that I’ve always had with Rosa Parks, and in some ways Jackie Robinson, is that by only choosing certain people for these roles, it kind of sends the message that only certain people are worthy of the full use of their rights and liberties.

    Listening to the trouble that some of the Jenna 6 got into after they were let out of jail or how Rodney King is still drinking and driving, people have actually said the effort poured into fighting for these people rights were wasted obviously, if these people weren’t able to go on to become up-right citizens after their brush with infamy.

  • Kjen,

    That’s a great point. It reminds me of how we expect the poor in this country to be saintly to be “worthy” or “deserving” or any help, as opposed to flawed humans like the rest of us.

  • When the legend sounds better then the facts, history always goes with the Legend

  • Grump

    Damn you, bc!
    I was just going to say that as well. I’ll keep purporting the legend and relish in the fact that Jackie Robinson’s 2nd season was when he let loose and acted like the man who was discharged from the Army for not getting off the bus.

  • young_

    @ kjen and redstar: I don’t follow. How does the fact/myth that it took an extraordinary person (which Jackie Robinson surely was) or “ordinary” person acting extraordinarily (like Parks)to claim a right and pave the way for others imply that other people aren’t deserving of those rights?

    Re: the Jena case, there’s a huge difference between arguing that someone is not worthy of a right versus arguing that they are not particularly useful public symbols. For decades, the NAACP LDF virtually only accepted criminal cases where they “knew” their defendants were innocent and of high “moral” standing in their communities. These determinations, which were often based on the word of local black community elites, were undoubtedly shaped by class, status and other issues. The NAACP LDF didn’t pick their cases and causes based on their belief that some people were more morally deserving of enjoying their rights, but because of pragmatic calculations about how to best advance the cause of black people in America.

  • This reminds me of a quote about history. Damn, I wish I could remember what it was. (I just did a google search with no good results) Anyway, it was basically stating that history is mainly false intrepretations of reality so this doesn’t surprise me.