ROSA PARKS AT 100: Why can’t Charles Blow stick to the facts!

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2013

Part 2—What three major newspapers said: Presumably, columnists at the New York Times know how to look things up.

They know how to fact-check a claim, no matter how pleasing it is.

That said, what did Charles Blow find if he fact-checked the claims which drove last Saturday’s column? If he fact-checked his claims, he found what we did:

His pleasing claims were bunk.

The pleasing claims which drove Blow’s piece concern the public’s understanding of Rosa Parks, who was born one hundred years ago this week. Blow cites a fascinating new book about Mrs. Parks—a book we strongly recommend, with several strong words of caution.

According to Blow, the new book, by Professor Jeanne Theoharis, “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.”

As Blow describes this alleged “mythology,” he cites material from Theoharis’ book which undercuts the myth:

Blow cites the fact that Rosa Parks was raised by a grandfather who often sat on his front porch with a rifle in case the Klan came. He cites the fact that Parks herself sometimes sat with her grandfather because, as she once said, “I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer.”

Blow cites another story from Mrs. Parks’ childhood. He describes the way she used a brick to defend herself against a white child, with her mother warning her that she would be lynched because she was “too high-strung.”

Blow cites the fact that Parks married a man who was already “a civil rights activist,” a man “who sometimes carried a gun.” He notes that Mrs. Parks herself had “spent nearly two decades before the bus incident struggling, organizing and agitating for civil rights, mostly as the secretary of the Montgomery” NAACP.

As Blow nears the end of his column, he cites another piece of “pure fiction” concerning Mrs. Parks. Then, quoting Theoharis, he describes the way the public was misled about Mrs. Parks' life at the time of her death:
BLOW (2/2/13): 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.

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.
When Parks died, Theoharis writes, “The Rosa Parks who surfaced in the deluge of public commentary was, in nearly every account, characterized as ‘quiet.’ ” Blow helps us see what that alleged fact means:

Rosa Parks and her astonishing life had been “sanitized and sugarcoated for easy consumption.”

In comments, some Times readers expressed anger at the way they’d been misled at the time of Parks' death. They didn’t know that Blow’s presentation was largely bogus—that they were actually being misled by the column which had them upset.

Presumably, Blow knows how to fact-check claims, even if the claims are pleasing. What did he find if he fact-checked the way Mrs. Parks’ life was recalled at the time of her death?

He might have started with the Washington Post. On the front page of that well-known newspaper, Patricia Sullivan wrote a 1989-word account of Parks’ remarkable life.

How surprising! Almost every element in Blow’s debunking was laid out that day in the Washington Post! In the passage which follows, Sullivan described Mrs. Parks at the time of her famous refusal to stand.

Rosa Parks’ remarkable life deserves a respectful telling. It received that treatment that day on the front page of the Post:
SULLIVAN (10/25/05): She was an activist already, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP. A member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church all her life, Parks admired the self-help philosophy of Booker T. Washington—to a point. But even as a child, she thought accommodating segregation was the wrong philosophy. She knew that in the previous year, two other women had been arrested for the same offense, but neither was deemed right to handle the role that was sure to become one of the most controversial of the century.

But it was as if Parks was born to the role. Rosa McCauley was born Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, the home of Booker T. Washington's renowned Tuskegee Institute, which drew many African American intelligentsia. She was the daughter of a carpenter and a teacher, was small for her age, had poor health and suffered chronic tonsillitis. Still a child when her parents separated, she moved with her mother to Pine Level, Ala., and grew up in an extended family that included her maternal grandparents.

Her mother taught Parks at home until she was 11, when she was enrolled in the Industrial School for Girls in Montgomery, where her aunt lived. Segregation was enforced, often violently. As an adult, she recalled watching her grandfather guard the front door with a shotgun as the Ku Klux Klan paraded down their road. Her younger brother, Sylvester, a decorated war hero in World War II, returned to a South that regarded uniformed veterans of color as "uppity" and demonstrated its disdain with beatings.

She married barber Raymond Parks in 1932 at her mother's house. They shared a passion for civil rights; her husband was an early defender of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of young African Americans whom rights advocates asserted were falsely accused of raping two white women.
Sullivan went to describe Parks’ training as a civil rights activist at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., in the summer of 1955. “So a few months later, in the winter of 1955, when Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, it was with the knowledge of both the everyday indignities of segregation and the building momentum of the civil rights movement,” Sullivan wrote.

Eventually, Sullivan discussed the matter of Parks’ alleged fatigue and/or aching feet at the time of her refusal to stand. Citing Mrs. Parks’ 1992 autobiography, she again recalled the defiant grandfather.

Then, she repeated one of Mrs. Parks’ most widely-quoted statements—a statement which was quoted everywhere at the time of her death:
SULLIVAN: "Let me have those front seats," the driver said, indicating the front seats of the middle section. No one moved. He repeated himself: "Y'all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats."

The black rider by the window rose, and Parks moved to let him pass by. The two women across the aisle also stood up. Parks slid over to the window. "I could not see how standing up was going to 'make it light' for me," she wrote in her autobiography, My Story (1992). "The more we gave in and complied, the worse they treated us.

"I thought back to the time when I used to sit up all night and didn't sleep, and my grandfather would have his gun right by the fireplace, or if he had his one-horse wagon going anywhere, he always had his gun in the back of the wagon," she wrote. "People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn'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 forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
“The idea that she stayed seated because of physical fatigue is pure fiction,” Blow heroically said. But the Washington Post directly addressed that claim in its account of Mrs. Parks’ life—and it cited most of the other elements identified in Blow’s column.

Sorry! There was no sanitizing of Parks in the Washington Post that morning. The fatigue and the aching feet were debunked. The defiant grandfather sat on his porch, with his granddaughter watching. Her husband’s (heroic) activism on behald of the Scottsboro Boys was cited.

Mrs. Parks’ activism, and her personal courage, were both front and center.

There was no sugarcoating of Parks in the Washington Post. All the basic elements Blow revealed were stressed in the Post’s report.

Did other newspapers sugarcoat Parks at the time of her death? If Blow fact-checked the Los Angeles Times, he found the passage posted below, part of a 2242-word front-page report.

As Blow would heroically do eight years later, Elaine Woo explicitly rejected “the mythology” that (allegedly) grew around Parks. Even the childhood incident with the brick was in Woo’s lengthy report:
WOO (10/25/05): Memorialized in poetry, dance and song, Parks was, by most accounts, both simpler and more complex than the mythology that grew around her.

She was born Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Ala., to Leona Edwards, a teacher, and James McCauley, a carpenter and builder. Her parents split up when she was 5, prompting her mother to move Rosa and her younger brother Sylvester to live with family in Pine Level, a small town near Montgomery.

Some of her early memories were of white people who treated blacks kindly, particularly a Yankee soldier who said she was cute and "treated me like I was just another little girl, not a little black girl," Parks wrote in her 1992 autobiography, "Rosa Parks: My Story."

But she also remembered an old black man named Gus Vaughn who refused to work for whites. And she remembered how her grandfather kept a gun by his side to protect the family from raids by the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s.

The earliest hint of the fortitude that would bolt her to a bus seat years later may have come when she was 10. On the road near home, she had encountered a white boy named Franklin, who uttered some offensive words and threatened to hit her. Young Rosa picked up a brick and dared him to strike. Franklin, she recalled, "thought better of the idea and went away."

Her grandmother was horrified by Rosa's behavior. You'll be lynched before you turn 20 if you keep standing up to whites, she scolded.

Parks once speculated that the urge to stand up to oppressors may have come from protecting her little brother from bullies. Whatever the cause, "I do know," she wrote, "that I had a very strong sense of what was fair."

[...]

She went to high school at a laboratory school run by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes, but was forced to drop out to care for her grandmother and later for her mother. She went back to school for her degree in 1933, after she married Raymond Parks, a Montgomery barber. Raymond Parks was also an activist in the local NAACP and helped raise money to defend the nine black men accused in the Scottsboro rape case, one of the most sensational racial trials of the Depression era. He was the first man aside from her grandfather with whom Parks could discuss racial conditions, and it impressed her that he was not afraid of whites.

[...]

Several hours after her arrest she was bailed out of jail by NAACP activist E.D. Nixon, civil rights lawyer Clifford Durr and his activist wife, Virginia. That night they all gathered at Parks' home. Nixon asked if she would be willing to be the plaintiff in a test case against the bus segregation law. Although her husband feared that lending her name to the cause would get her killed, she said yes.

She had plenty of opportunity for forethought, but Parks said she never intended to get arrested.

Nor did she refuse to give up her seat because she was tired, as many in her legion of admirers told the story. She was not any more weary that day than usual.

"No," she said, "the only tired I was, was tired of giving in." The little girl of 10 who refused to take guff from a white boy had grown into a 42-year-old woman who couldn't see why she should stand up so a white person could sit down.
Can you find the sugarcoating? Woo included the rifle-bearing grandfather—and she told the story of the brick, with the subsequent warning about getting lynched. She included the (heroic) activism of Raymond Parks—and she too explicitly debunked the story of the tired feet, in the memorable way Parks herself had debunked it.

Did Americans newspapers “sanitize and sugarcoat” Parks at the time of her death? That is the claim that Blow passed on, live and direct from a rather doctrinaire professor who chose to toy with some basic facts to advance her own doctrinaire world-view.

Did Blow fact-check this professor’s claims? Right at the start of her book, Theoharis specifically criticizes the New York Times’ coverage at the time of Parks’ death, cherry-picking one tiny phrase to give a grossly misleading impression.

Did Blow check to see it his own newspaper sugarcoated Mrs. Parks’ remarkable life? If he did, he found an 1826-word front page report by E. R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner—and a black woman who was raised in Conyers, Georgia.

Did the New York Times sugarcoat/sanitize Parks? Like Sullivan and Woo, Shipp explicitly rejected the alleged mythology Blow and Theoharis have now bravely dared to discuss while pretending to be in the vanguard:
SHIPP (10/25/05): Over the years myth tended to obscure the truth about Mrs. Parks. One legend had it that she was a cleaning woman with bad feet who was too tired to drag herself to the rear of the bus. Another had it that she was a ''plant'' by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The truth, as she later explained, was that she was tired of being humiliated, of having to adapt to the byzantine rules, some codified as law and others passed on as tradition, that reinforced the position of blacks as something less than full human beings.

''She was fed up,'' said Elaine Steele, a longtime friend and executive director of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. ''She was in her 40's. She was not a child. There comes a point where you say, 'No, I'm a full citizen, too. This is not the way I should be treated.'''

In ''Stride Toward Freedom,'' Dr. King wrote, ''Actually no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.'''

Mrs. Parks was very active in the Montgomery N.A.A.C.P. chapter, and she and her husband, Raymond, a barber, had taken part in voter registration drives.

At the urging of an employer, Virginia Durr, Mrs. Parks had attended an interracial leadership conference at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., in the summer of 1955. There, she later said, she ''gained strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks but for all oppressed people.''
Did E.R. Shipp sugarcoat Mrs. Parks, who wanted to work for all oppressed people? Mrs. Parks’ defiant grandfather didn’t appear in the Times—and Shipp’s report failed to include Mrs. Parks’ own statement about being “tired of giving in.”

But Shipp, like the others, explicitly rejected the “myth” about Mrs. Parks’ fatigue. She added these pieces of sugar-coating as she described Parks’ refusal to stand:

“Her act of civil disobedience, what seems a simple gesture of defiance so many years later, was in fact a dangerous, even reckless move in 1950's Alabama...Blacks had been arrested, and even killed, for disobeying bus drivers.”

Presumably, Blow knows how to fact-check claims. That said, the implied claim he links to his slippery professor—the claim that Parks was “sanitized and sugarcoated” at the time of her death—is just monumentally bogus.

At this point, we’ve barely scraped the surface of the bunk involved in that claim. Tomorrow, we’ll look at more of the ways Mrs. Parks was described in 2005.

For today, we’ll close with yesterday’s question: Is there anyone who has earned the right to have the truth told about her life? To be treated with full respect, even by our leading journalists?

In some truly remarkable ways, Theoharis and Blow are toying with the memory of Mrs. Parks. In fairness, they tell a pleasing tale as they do—but the pleasing tale they tell is monumentally bogus.

Why do these people persist in this conduct? At the very least, can’t they stop the fictitious claims when it comes to a person like Parks?

Tomorrow: A debunking so widespread as to be almost hackneyed

8 comments:

  1. As a child I knew Rosa Parks as the exhausted colored lady who was cruelly handled for not moving to the back of a bus. Years later I learned that wasn't really the truth much less the whole story. It's not exactly news that Rosa Parks was a serious civil rights activist placed on that bus with the intention of stirring up a hornets nest. The tired colored lady bit is a tale worthy of Parson Weems and any second-year PR major.

    This all reminds me a little of the recent flap over Oliver Stone's "Untold History" series/book. In the latest NY Review of Books Professor Sean Wilentz points out there's little in the book that wasn't told. Perhaps we don't tell such things to children, but the information's out there, especially in college texts.

    How embarrassing it must be to learn your "scoop" is in fact all but common knowledge.

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  2. Blow should keep in mind the old saw, "If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is."

    A cousin sent me a link that is useful for those poor souls challenged by fact checking. You know, the clowns that forward e-mails that are obviously BS.

    It's called "let me google that for you."

    http://lmgtfy.com

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  3. There also was a brief (128 pages before notes and index) 1991 book called "The Birth of the Montgomery Bus Boycott" by Dr. Roberta Hughes Wright that told the real story of Rosa Parks before her death. I think I picked it up for a dollar or two at Strand Books in NYC. Even so, I didn't have any problem with Blow's piece. Myths have a way of coming back from the dead, as any continuing Gore supporter would know. I don't mind your rebutting of many of the Gore myths, even though it's been done before, so let Blow have his say. No harm.
    Bill Dunlap, Lake Oswego OR

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  4. The fact that there were some stories already debunking the myth says absolutely nothing about whether the myth existed or not. A lot more people formed their views from TV shows, news and otherwise, than from well-reported articles in the Washington Post or LA Times. I think I read everything, but it was only in the last few years that I actually realized how much of an activist she was. There was, indeed, a myth that, at minimum, that it was a spontaneous action -- that she was on her way home from work and thought it unfair to have to give up her seat. Who knows exactly where it came from.

    This is another case of TDH dredging deep to criticize, with a distinct character-assault edge, certain left-leaning media figures he has a personal distaste for. Blow was reporting what an author said. If he himself thought it a given that such a myth has existed, there would be no reason for him to do a "fact-check" on the author such as what TDH did here. TDH did it either because he has long known the truth and had forgotten there was a myth, or simply because he loves to attack Blow. That's if you can call finding a dwelling a couple of articles at the time a fact-check -- which, of course, you can't. There is nothing wrong with what Blow said in this case anyway.

    ReplyDelete