ROSA PARKS AT 100: Creating new myths!


Part 6—Diane Rehm fails to serve: Much of what we regard as “fact” and “news” is actually legend and myth.

Various players invent these myths. If the myths advance approved story-lines, our journalists actively pimp them.

In her fascinating new book about Rosa Parks, Professor Theoharis has invented a set of new myths and legends about a very famous, very significant person. Indeed, several of these myths and legends provide the basic narrative focus for Theoharis’ book.

In a rational world, journalists would question or challenge these presentations. But that isn’t the way our modern “press corps” works.

Consider again the part of Theoharis’ book in which she seems to say or suggest that Mrs. Parks was, or may have been, the victim of an attempted sexual assault when she was a young woman.

Theoharis’ presentation of this matter is remarkably jumbled, contradictory, confusing. Truth to tell, her presentation simply seems dishonest, unless we assume that she’s so doctrinaire that she can’t grasp her responsibilities as a journalist and an historian.

In a rational world, journalists would ask Theoharis to clarify and explain her presentation. But you don’t live in that world.

In your world, Charles Blow deepened the confusion about this matter in his February 2 New York Times column. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/8/13.

Four days later, along came Diane Rehm.

Last Wednesday, Rehm interviewed Theoharis for the full hour on her syndicated NPR program. Midway through the interview, Rehm directed a great deal of attention to the alleged assault against Mrs. Parks.

For the full transcript, click here. To listen to the tape, just click this.

Below, you see how the exchange about this matter started. In her question, Rehm is referring to the “time period” when Parks had to drop out of high school to help care for her sick mother and grandmother:
REHM (2/6/13): There is an incident you talk about in that time period when she's working for a white family and “Mr. Charlie” enters. What happens?

THEOHARIS: So this is a piece of writing she appears to do in the 1950s. It's in her hand. She talks—the narrator in the piece, which I call Rosa in the book, is working for a white couple. She's taking care of the baby at night. The white couple has gone out. A neighbor is let into the house by the black man who works there, and she calls the white man “Mr. Charlie,” and this is, I mean, this is a signal, right, that this is also an allegory, right?

“Mr. Charlie” was a term black people at the time often used to describe white people, and white people's arbitrary power. So Mr. Charlie comes in and sort of starts to drink and makes it sort of known that he wants to get with her. Rosa Parks is a small woman, and she scared, and she's writing, you know, in this account, and then her—she thinks about Psalm 27 and then she decides to resist. And so she basically in the story harangues Mr. Charlie and says, “I'm not— You’re gonna have to rape a dead body. You are, you know, why aren't white women good enough for you? Why, you know, I'm not going to go with you.” And she proceeds to tell him what she's going to do.
The slickness is everywhere in that response by Theoharis. Speaking with Rehm, the professor says that the “piece of writing” in question was done “in the 1950s.” She doesn’t mention that this would mean that the writing was done long after the “time period” Rehm has cited. (Mrs. Parks was born in 1913. In her book, Theoharis actually says that the text in question was written “in the late 1950s or 1960s.” This would mean that Mrs. Parks was at least 45 when she wrote the text.)

Much more significantly, Theoharis doesn’t say that she describes this “piece of writing” as “a short story...written in the first person” in her actual book.

As we noted last Friday, a great deal of confusion is created when Theoharis calls this piece of writing “a short story.” In a dimly rational world, a journalist would want to ask her why she called it that.

Let’s grant the fact that this text was written “in Mrs. Parks’ hand.” Why did Theoharis describe it as “a short story,” rather than as a memoir or as a piece of autobiography?

Strangely, Theoharis doesn’t explain this obvious point in her book, creating massive confusion about the meaning of this piece of writing. In a rational world, a journalist would want to make her explain. But Blow completely ignored this matter in his column, where he gave this “scene” from the book large play while adding to the confusion.

Four days later, Rehm didn’t ask for a clarification either, in an inexcusable breakdown of journalism.

Reading that first full response by Theoharis, you can see what “slippery” looks like in a setting like this. “This is also an allegory,” she says (our emphasis), failing to explain what else we actually know this text to be. She then starts talking about what “the narrator in the piece, which I call Rosa in the book,” does and says in response to her attacker.

Is Theoharis describing an actual incident from Mrs. Parks’ life? By the time this first response is finished, the answer is clear as mud. In a rational world—in a world served by actual journalists—Theoharis would have been asked to answer that question.

You don’t live in any such world. In this, our actual world, this is what Rehm said next:
REHM (continuing directly): And all of that is in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

[Station break]

REHM: Welcome back. Jeanne Theoharis is with me. Her new book is titled, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College.

Just before the brake we were talking about Rosa Parks' encounter with a man she called Mr. Charlie. How did that end?

THEOHARIS: So he is trying to get with her, or sexually assault her, and she decides to resist. She tells him, you know, he's going to have to rape a dead body. She just continues to sort of make it known that she does not consent to this. And at the end of the account—and this is in her hand—it appears to be dated from the 1950s, she says he stops. And so it's—the document is a remarkable view of her political philosophy, which is that even if you're small, even if you don't seem to have a tremendous amount of power, that you resist, you tell people what you're going to do to them, you tell people you do not consent. And that sometimes this makes them back off.
Good lord! After breaking for messages, Rehm returned to this topic. But uh-oh! In her subsequent question, she rather clearly seemed to assume that Mrs. Parks had experienced an actual “encounter with a man she called Mr. Charlie.”

Rather clearly, Rehm seems to assume that Theoharis is describing a real-life incident.

In response, Theoharis plowed ahead, offering no words of caution about this rather plain impression. She seemed to be describing an actual incident, although she kept using slippery terms—“the account,” “the document”—which obscure the nature of the text whose contents she is describing.

A cynic would say that Theoharis is working hard to keep her remarks “technically accurate.” Just a guess: Most listeners thought she was describing a real-life incident, especially since that’s what Rehm herself seemed to think.

In this new Q-and-A, there is no sense that Rehm understands the uncertainty surrounding this matter. But largely due to Rehm’s failure to serve, we can make the following statement:

In these exchanges, as in Blow’s column, a new legend was being born. This new legend was being fueled by a very slippery professor—and by rank pseudo-journalism.

Needless to say, sexual assaults against black women were common in Alabama in the early 1930s, when Mrs. Parks was a young woman. Sexual assaults against all women remain quite common today. But in this interview, as in her book, Theoharis keeps glossing an obvious question: To what extent do we know if the incident described in “this document, this text” actually occurred in real life?

Theoharis plays a sick, slippery game; Rehm, like Blow, permits it. This is how myths and legends get born, even about people like Mrs. Parks.

Why do progressives accept this?

Final point: If you read the full interview with Theoharis, you will see her heighten the confusion with her closing remarks on this subject. After seeming to discuss a real incident, Theoharis ended with this:
THEOHARIS (continuing directly): This is— Again, dating it, it appears that this may have happened right in the year before she meets Raymond Parks. Again, we don't know if this story is a composite story. We don't know if this happened to her, if it happened to somebody she knew, if it happened to her and turned out slightly different. But I think what it shows us is Rosa Parks' sort of political ideology in action. Now we're going to see that ideology in action over and over and over throughout the course of the rest of her life.
That doesn’t make a lick of sense. First, the professor tells us that “it appears that this may have happened right in the year before she meets Raymond Parks” (that is, when Mrs. Parks was a young woman, decades before the text was written). She then semi-contradicts herself; if this incident actually “happened to somebody Mrs. Parks knew,” there is no reason why it would have occurred in that year. It could have occurred in 1960, around the time Mrs. Parks wrote the "short story" in question.

As in her book, the professor goes on to offer a hurried acknowledgment about the uncertainty of this matter. But this only occurs after she has created the sense that she has been describing a real incident from Mrs. Parks’ life.

Theoharis plays these ridiculous, slippery games at various points in her book. With many days to prepare herself, Rehm just sat there and took it.

Gaze on the shape on your actual world! Your world runs on legends, on myths.

Tomorrow: Creating a myth about Mrs. Parks and Malcolm

Two additional points: RE Theoharis: We continue to wonder why Brooklyn College tolerates this type of conduct. Do hard-working American parents really pay tuition to get their kids played like this?

RE Rehm: We're sorry to see her bungle this way. In October 2000, we ourselves guested on her program, where we challenged the myths and legends defining the coverage of Campaign 2000. Others were there to advance the confusion, but we remain gratful to Rehm for the shot she gave us that day—for the shot she gave that day to a nation of misled voters.


  1. Physicists tell us that subatomic particles might be able to travel through time.

    Reporters seem to permit human beings to do the same.

    Do you remember the brouhaha when Michelle Obama claimed she watched the Olympics Games on her father's knee and then recited memories from different games?

    She never claimed she witnessed all the events at the same time.

    In fact, she gave no time reference other than she was a child at the time.

    Yet the right wing blogosphere went wild claiming that she was a liar (and by association, so were all Obamas.)

    Never let facts get in the way of a good story, especially if you are trying to prove a point.

  2. Bob, surely you know academia is full of bullshit and bullshitters. This is a concerning episode, but when I see that Theoharis is in the women's studies department (and the poli sci dept.) it concerns me less than if she were in the history department. The humanities are full of slippery shit. Unfortunately it's just the way academia is and has been for decades. But you're right, when this professor is out there spreading the bullshit through the media, it's not good.

  3. Diane Rehm has long been one of my favorite journalists. She doesn't just suck up to her guests and she generally asks the questions we would like to have answered. She will actually challenge her guests, even hard-bitten right-wing ideologues like Grover Norquist. I hate to criticize her, but it does look like she dropped the ball a little bit with this interview. Normally, I would expect her to ask straight out if this is something that happened to Parks or not.