ROSA PARKS AT 100: Fiction and myth!

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 4, 2013

Part 1—Charles Blow keeps making things up: Rosa Parks died in October 2005 at the age of 92. She became the 31st person in American history to lie in state at the Capitol Building.

Today would have been her one hundredth birthday. In honor of the occasion, Charles Blow’s column in Saturday’s New York Times discussed a fascinating new book about her life.

Do we know all we should about Rosa Parks? As he began, Blow recommended this new book, just as we do—and he made a slightly odd statement:
BLOW (2/2/13): Rosa Parks, Revisited

Most of what you think you know about Rosa Parks may well be wrong.

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.
Most of what we think we know about Rosa Parks may be wrong? Because the claim is so heavily nuanced, it’s almost certainly true.

But as he cointinued, Blow identified the belief, or alleged belief, he seems to have in mind. In the passage we have quoted, Blow challenges “the romanticized, children’s-book story of a meek seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history in a moment of uncalculated resistance.”

That account of Parks is wrong, Blow implies. He also suggests that Professor Theoharis’ new book about Parks lays this “pure mythology” to rest.

As he continues, Blow cites some aspects of Parks’ life with which many people may not be familiar. As he does, he suggests that there was nothing meek or mild about Rosa Parks.

When Parks was a child, her grandfather “often sat vigil on the porch with a rifle in case the Klan came,” Blow writes. Parks “sometimes sat with him because, as the book says she put it, ‘I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer.’”

As he continues, Blow devotes four paragraphs to a story about an attempted sexual assault against Parks—a story whose provenance the professor obscures and Blow completely distorts.

Blow notes that Raymond Parks, Rosa Parks’ husband, was a (very brave) civil rights activist before he ever met his wife—and that he “sometimes carried a gun.” Blow notes that Mrs. Parks “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.”

Some or all of that information may have been new to some readers. But soon, Blow returns to the “pure mythology” he cites at the start of his piece. In the passage which follows, he identifies a piece of “pure fiction” concerning the act which made Rosa Parks world famous:
BLOW: [Rosa] Parks explained that “I had felt for a long time, that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so.”

That day came on Dec. 1, 1955, when a bus driver asked her to get up so that a white man could sit. She refused. This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was a political calculation informed by a life of activism. As Parks put it, “an opportunity was being given to me to do what I had asked of others.”

And the idea that she stayed seated because of physical fatigue is pure fiction.

“I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting,” the book quotes her as saying. “It was just popular, I suppose because they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around.”

The book also lays out Parks’s leading role in the bus boycotts and her decades of activism after the civil rights movement.
Again, Blow insists that Parks was not “a meek seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history”—although, it should be said, there would be nothing wrong with being such a person.

In his column, Blow keeps suggesting that fiction and mythology surround our understanding of Mrs. Parks. As he nears the end of his column, he quotes Professor Theoharis, who identifies one source of this breakdown right at the start of her book:
BLOW (continuing directly): When Parks died in 2005, Theoharis says, “The Rosa Parks who surfaced in the deluge of public commentary was, in nearly every account, characterized as ‘quiet.’ ‘Humble,’ ‘dignified,’ and ‘soft-spoken,’ she was ‘not angry’ and ‘never raised her voice.’ ”

Parks, like many other Americans who over the years have angrily agitated for change in this country, had been sanitized and sugarcoated for easy consumption.
Where have we the (misled) people been getting our “fiction” about Rosa Parks? As Blow quotes an angry professor, we are told that “nearly every account” of Parks' life at the time of her death painted her as someone she wasn’t.

Blow implies that these accounts “sanitized and sugarcoated” Parks. Presumably, those presentations advanced the mythology Blow had cited—the idea that Parks was a meek, quiet seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history. The idea that she refused to get up from her seat because of fatigue, because her feet were tired.

Was Rosa Parks tired that day? Did her feet hurt? It ought to be said—those would have been excellent reasons not to surrender her seat. But Blow is certainly right on one score. As Parks explained all through her life, those weren’t the reasons why she refused to get up from her seat that day.

Did Parks resist because her feet ached? Almost surely, anyone with that impression is in the grip of a fiction.

But then, there are a lot of mythologies about Mrs. Parks, and Blow and Theoharis seem eager to create some new fictions. Indeed, some new myths are already spreading in the comments to Blow’s column, bogus claims concerning the motive for Parks' most famous act.

Without any question, Theoharis has written a fascinating book about Mrs. Parks, a book which deserves a close reading. That said, is there any American whose life has been such that she deserves a full measure of respect and devotion from our journalists—and from our professors, who can still, on the rare occasion, be quite doctrinaire?

If there is such a person, it’s Mrs. Parks, for reasons we’ll consider all week.

Are new myths being spread about Rosa Parks? Tomorrow, just for starters, we’ll address one part of Blow’s new column. We’ll show you what was actually said in American newspapers, and on American news programs, when Mrs. Parks died in October 2005.

We’ll contrast what was actually said at that time to the absurd account found at the start of Theoharis’ book. We’ll ask the question we’ve asked for fourteen years: Why do our journalistic and academic elites feel entitled to make shit up, even about Mrs. Parks?

Mrs. Parks died after a long and astonishing life. By almost all accounts from the people who knew her, her life was “rebellious” in certain ways, “quiet” in many others.

Except in works of myth and fiction, still waters can sometimes run very deep. “Quiet” people will sometimes produce the most powerful acts of rebellion.

Tomorrow: October 25, 2005: Here's what was actually said

5 comments:

  1. Will read with interest.

    I don't remember when I became aware that Rosa Parks was a long-time, active NAACP member, and such details as that. But in so learning I did have to unlearn the impressions I had gained from news coverage, that she was only -- nothing more -- than a simple woman with tired feet.

    At about the same time I learned that most of the great black musicians of the 19th-20th centuries actually did know how to read music, were quite well educated musically (usually through church, sometimes through speak-easy and house-of-easy-virtue youths, very rarely by the means available otherwise to middle and more-than-middle class white people).

    When was I (un)learning all of this? Probably late 1970's, early 1980's.

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