ROSA PARKS AT 100: The myth of the myth!


Part 3—The shape of our national problem: In comments, several readers of Charles Blow’s column noted that it was pure bunk.

“You're just discovering this now?” one acerbic reader asked. “Glad to hear that Rosa Parks is getting a well-deserved book of her own, but this is not the first time someone has unveiled the true story of her actions,” this reader said, massively understating.

“I'm sure this is an excellent book,” another reader wrote, talking a serious leap of faith, “but it’s old news, as anyone who has paid attention to the true history of the civil rights movement already knows.”

Duh. But other readers lionized Blow, praising him for telling the truth, a truth which had long been hidden. In these somewhat embarrassing comments, we get a glimpse of the shape of our broken discourse:
COMMENTS TO BLOW’S COLUMN (2/2/13): Thank you and the professor for revealing the truth. This old white girl is happy to read it.


Thank you, Mr. Blow. I'll use this column in my history course when we get to the 1950s, and I'll read The Rebellious Life as well.


Bravo, Mr. Blow! Let the truth speak loudly and may the country listen.


Rosa Parks is even more heroic in reality. Kudos to her biographer for bringing this crucial information forward and to Mr. Blow for publicizing it.


I look forward to more columns like these, dispelling myths and pointing us to the truth.


Thank you so much for this illuminating column, Mr. Blow. Your points about the "sanitization" of Rosa, as well as her long life of activism and feisty personality, were things I'd never known.
And so forth, and so on and more so. New York Times readers constantly fawn to the newspaper’s famous columnists, no matter how inane, bogus, dishonest or disrespectful the column in question may be. In this way, readers of our smartest newspaper have sleep-walked through the many years in which Times columnists have advanced the stupidest narratives of our age:

Why did Al Gore wear a brown suit? Did Naomi Wolf tell him to do it?

Through all the columns from Maureen Dowd trashing every known major female Dem, gullible readers have continued to gulp the purest bullshit the New York Times can roll.

We are where we are because of these people—because of this newspaper’s pseudo-journalists, because of its gullible readers. The comments to Blow from the history teachers were perhaps the most embarrassing. But the comments to his ludicrous column were an education all the way through.

Can we talk? That last quoted commenter “hadn’t known about the sanitization of Rosa” Parks because the sanitization hadn’t occurred, certainly not in the ludicrous way Blow described it.

According to Blow, Mrs. Parks was “sanitized and sugarcoated” at the time of her death in 2005. Quoting Professor Theoharis, he seemed to say that this sanitization had occurred “in nearly every account” of her remarkable life.

According to Blow, “pure mythology” and “pure fiction” were widely advanced in the process. Has any Times columnist ever authored a more absurd misstatement?

The truth is nothing like this. Mrs. Parks died on October 24, 2005. That very afternoon, Bob Dotson recalled her astonishing life in a report for NBC News.

As he closed, Dotson debunked the very “myth” Blow finally “dispelled” last weekend:
DOTSON (10/24/05): She would not budge on that long-ago bus, because she had been forced from the seat once before by the same driver, the day she tried to register to vote in 1943.

MRS. PARKS (videotape): As long as we did give in, it meant that they could say that we were satisfied with that type of treatment.

DOTSON: Rosa Parks never was. And for that, she was given this country’s highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.

People said she was tired the day she refused to give her bus seat to a white man. "They were wrong," she said. "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

Bob Dotson, NBC News.
As he closed, Dotson debunked the piece of “pure fiction” which Blow pretended to refute last week, even as he suggested that the press corps had massively failed in this task at the time of Parks’ death.

In fact, everyone refuted this alleged myth at the time of Mrs. Parks’ death. Scads of them quoted Mrs. Parks, just as Dotson did.

"The only tired I was, was tired of giving in?” Mrs. Parks told the story that way in her own book, Rosa Parks: My Story, a book which appeared in 1992. Now, everyone and his Uncle Harold refuted this myth about Parks. They used her own memorable words to double-kill a piece of mythology which had long since ceased to exist.

As we noted yesterday, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times repeated Parks’ words about not being tired in lengthy front-page news reports the morning after her death. They included all the parts of Parks’ life story which Blow said had been “sanitized.” See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/5/13.

The Post and the Times quoted Mrs. Parks—but then, so did almost everyone else. In the Boston Globe, Mark Feeney did the honors in a front-page news report:
FEENEY (10/25/05): "I had no idea when I refused to give up my seat on that Montgomery bus that my small action would help put an end to the segregation laws in the South," she wrote in her autobiography, "Rosa Parks: My Story" (1992).

"People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that wasn't true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."


"I had a very strong sense of what was fair," she wrote of herself as a girl, something she attributed to the teachings of her mother and maternal grandparents.
Feeney described Parks’ long-time activism before her famous refusal to stand, along with the activism of her husband, two other elements which had been sanitized, according to Blow's absurd column.

“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” This refutation of a long-refuted myth was cited all over the country. Parks was quoted in the Boston Globe—and in the conservative Boston Herald. She was quoted in the Washington Post—and in the conservative Washington Times.

She was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—and in the Birmingham News. Her words were repeated in Salt Lake City’s Deseret Morning News—and in the Augusta Chronicle.

Then, the syndicated columns began to appear, spreading the refutations farther. Ellen Goodman’s column debuted in the Boston Globe, then spread to newspapers all over the country. Last Saturday, Blow basically rewrote Goodman’s piece, while suggesting that he was the first to tell the tale:

It is remarkable how often the legend survives the legendary figure. So it is with Rosa Parks.

The mythology describes the woman who died Monday at 92 as a "humble seamstress." The textbooks pay homage to a "simple woman" with tired feet whose refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white man half a century ago sparked a movement. The eulogies cast her as the "mother of the civil rights movement," as if it were an unplanned parenthood.

But the obituaries also suggest another side to her story. The "humble seamstress" was a civil rights activist long before that fateful bus ride. The "simple woman," secretary of her NAACP chapter, attended a leadership conference the summer before her act of civil disobedience. As for those tired feet? Parks herself wrote, "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
Goodman’s column spread the refutation far and wide. But so did other syndicated columns, all of which quoted Parks’ famous words about not being tired:
Syndicated columns quoting Parks’ refutation:
Ellen Goodman, the Boston Globe
Dale McFeatters, Scripps Howard News Service
Marc Morial, Copley News Service
Gary Borders, Cox News Service
Gregory Clay, Knight Ridder/Tribune
The Associated Press didn’t quote Mrs. Parks’ words in its news report, though reporter Bree Fowler quickly refuted the idea that Parks had refused to stand because her feet “were hurting.” That said, the AP had published a lengthy review of Mrs. Parks' life in December 2004, ten months before, on the anniversary of her famous action.

In Helen O’Neill’s 1600-word piece, the AP directly refuted the alleged mythology, ten months before Parks’ death. O'Neill described Mrs. Parks as "a woman whose near mythological status has long eclipsed the reality of who she is and what she accomplished." She then explained what she meant:
O’NEILL (12/4/04): Parks herself has chafed at the way she has often been portrayed: A 42-year-old seamstress so exhausted after a day stitching hems at the Montgomery Fair Department Store that she simply refused to budge.

"The only tired I was," she wrote in her autobiography, "was tired of giving in."

In fact, Parks had been actively involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, despite the fact that, at the time, anyone who supported desegregation risked reprisals from the Ku Klux Klan.

But Parks, as a child, had been enrolled in a private school in Montgomery where, in addition to English and science, white teachers taught black students a philosophy of self-worth and equality. Later she worked at a military base where segregation was banned.

"I could ride on an integrated trolley on the base," she wrote. "But when I left the base I had to ride home on a segregated bus."

Quietly, she began to engage in small acts of resistance, such as leading youth members of the NAACP to Montgomery's main library, even though they knew they would be directed to the poorly stocked branches for blacks across town.

She married Raymond Parks, a barber, drawn to him, she wrote, by "the fact he didn't seem to have that meek attitude, what we called an Uncle Tom attitude toward white people." He was also deeply involved in the NAACP. There were secret nightly meetings and endless reports of lynchings and other acts of racial violence.

As secretary of the NAACP, Parks would read them all.
There wasn't much sugarcoating there. The AP filed this lengthy portrait ten months before Parks' death.

In fairness to Blow, his ludicrous claim about “sanitization and sugarcoating” is a faithful account of the outright deception offered by Professor Theoharis at the start of her new book about Parks, a fascinating book we strongly recommend.

Theoharis discusses the full arc of Mrs. Parks’ life. But she is one of the most doctrinaire writers we have encountered since the time when the PLP broke from SDS. She apparently feels that her heartful beliefs permit her to peddle absolute nonsense about the way Mrs. Parks’ life has allegedly been distorted.

Theoharis paints herself as a brave bold hero at Mrs. Parks' expense.

Tomorrow, we’ll show you what Theoharis writes at the start of her book concerning the coverage of Mrs. Parks at the time of her death. If Theoharis researched her claim at all, what she writes is grossly dishonest, an act of outright deception.

Blow should have told his readers that. Instead, he offered one of the most ridiculous statements in the long history by which we've been handed world-class bullshit by columnists at the Times.

Many people wrote searching reviews of Mrs. Parks’ life at the time of her death. Let’s excerpt three more:

In the New York Times, Juan Williams essentially wrote last weekend's Blow column. Eight years later, Blow would rewrite this piece, then claim it had never been written:
WILLIAMS (10/31/05): Rosa Parks led an inspiring life. Unfortunately, we rarely hear about it.

That may sound surprising at a time when Rosa Parks is probably mentioned in every American history textbook and is the subject of dozens of biographies. The problem is that her story is usually presented as a simplistic morality tale.


The truth is that Mrs. Parks was not someone who one day, out of the blue, decided to defy the local custom of blacks sitting in the back of the bus. That story leads some people to the cynical conclusion, once voiced by a character in the movie ''Barbershop,'' that all Rosa Parks did was sit on her bottom. That's not only insulting but a distortion that takes away the powerful truth that Rosa Parks worked hard to develop her own political consciousness and then worked hard to build a politically aware black community in the heart of Dixie.

Before that one moment of defiance on the bus she was a civil rights activist who had long fought to get voting rights for black people in Alabama. Apparently it is too confusing to mention that as far back as 1943 she had refused to follow the rules requiring black people to enter city buses through the back door. And it invites too much complexity to mention that in the late 40's, as an official of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P., she was forming a coalition with a group of black and white women in Montgomery to fight segregated seating on city buses.

...In Montgomery, she worked mending dresses. One of her employers was Virginia Durr, the wife of a powerful white lawyer. Mrs. Durr, a member of the interracial Women's Political Council, became Mrs. Parks's ally in a long-term effort to use political pressure to end the daily indignity of riding segregated buses.

Mrs. Durr introduced Mrs. Parks to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The school taught strategies to empower white and black people to get better wages, to register to vote and organize as a political force. Even before Highlander, Mrs. Parks had championed the rights of a teenager, Claudette Colvin, who was arrested in March 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to white people on a Montgomery bus.

All of this preceded the moment when Rosa Parks refused to give up her own seat on the bus. Even after her arrest she had to agree to fight the charges of violating segregation laws, and risk angering the white establishment in town and losing her job. Her husband and her mother told her she was going to be lynched for becoming the named plaintiff in a challenge to segregation. She made a deliberate decision to take up the fight. There was nothing spontaneous about this.
Williams’ column told the real story, but he did protest a bit too much. By now, many others were telling the same complex story about Rosa Parks. In Newsweek, Ellis Cose used the very “children’s book” metaphor Blow dragged out last weekend, attributing it to an Alabama journalist:
COSE (11/7/05): A weary seamstress on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 refused to stand so a white man could sit, ushering in the age of equality. So goes the “children's version of the civil-rights movement,” in the words of author Diane McWhorter.

The complete story is considerably less child friendly. It would include at least a reference to Thomas Edward Brooks, a 21-year-old black soldier who got on a Montgomery bus in 1950. Brooks made the mistake of entering through the front door instead of the back. For that, as authors Donnie Williams and Wayne Greenhaw relate in "The Thunder of Angels," a policeman bashed him on the head with a billy club and shot him dead.

At least two other black men were similarly killed in the years leading up to Parks's act of civil disobedience.
Can we talk? By the time of Mrs. Parks’ death, the refutation of the alleged myth was so widespread that it was almost hackneyed. In truth, it had been a long time since anyone had been spreading the alleged myth about Mrs. Parks.

That said, many people, Cose and Williams included, wrote accounts of Mrs. Parks’ life that were very much worth reviewing. For our money, Rochelle Riley may have said it best in the Detroit Free Press, in the city to which Mrs. Parks was forced to move to escape the loss of her employment (and that of her husband) and the relentless threats:
RILEY (10/25/05): Anyone who thinks that Rosa Parks was a simple seamstress who just got tired one day better take another look at the history. A former secretary of the NAACP and adviser to the NAACP Youth Council, Parks had been evicted from buses before.

The fact that she was a tiny, soft-spoken but firm woman belied the effect she had on the battle for equality. She was no accidental activist.


Parks was a complex woman who understood the plight of her race. She had more heart and courage and compassion for the circumstances that have led to the black condition in poor neighborhoods in cities across the country than other black people could admit then or now.

That compassion was evident in August 1994, after a would-be young thief attacked her in her own house. In a later account of the incident, she wrote, "I pray for this young man and the conditions in our country that have made him this way."

I can't forget her concern for that young man. I love her ability to see the place that birthed his anger.
Riley wasn’t sanitizing or sugarcoating. For ourselves, we like the edge of anger that animated her rejection of the “simple seamstress who just got tired” story—a refutation which was occurring everywhere newsprint was sold.

Over the weekend, New York Times readers were thanking Blow for finally letting them hear the truth. History teachers were praising Blow’s courage!

They'd never heard this story before! Gaze on the shape of our problem.

Tomorrow: Professor Theoharis and Columnist Blow assail the words “quiet,” “soft-spoken”


  1. New York Times readers constantly fawn to the newspaper’s famous columnists, no matter how inane, bogus, dishonest or disrespectful the column in question may be.

    Indeed they do. And in large numbers.

    A related point: Even though the Times could choose just about any columnists they wanted, many of their regular op-ed writers aren't very good. And, many of their editorials aren't well-argued.

    Looks like the Times opinion pages and the Times readers are made for each other.

    1. David in Cal sez: "many of the NY Times' regular op-ed writers aren't very good. And, many of their editorials aren't well-argued."

      Pot and kettle.

      Coming from you, Kettle in Cal, this means nothing.

  2. The NAACP had planned long for how to make this protest and court case.
    There was another woman who could have been "Rosa Parks", but she had a baby out of wedlock, so there was concern she'd be trashed for being immoral. So they waited for the right time.
    The whole track record of the NAACP, including the legendary Thurgood Marshall, in setting up one decisive case after another is one of the highlights of watching the Civil Rights era.
    The traditional story wouldn't be insulting per se - there's nothing wrong with a black seamstress refusing to release her seat because she was tired. But the repetition after it's well known that this was a planned non-violent protest is pure insult. It dismisses blacks and their leaders as impulsive, animalistic responders, rather than capable sentient strategists. Why in 2013 we even have to have this discussion, I couldn't say.

  3. I've got to go look at my daughter's middle school history book. I suspect that the simplistic account is still being presented in our children's textbooks. The History Teacher commenter to Blow probably only knows the one or two liners about Rosa Parks from those texts.

    Though, I do have a series of small soft cover books at home for my kids that do a good job of presenting historical figures. The Rosa Parks book was quite thorough, as I recall.