ROSA PARKS AT 100: Professors gone wild!


Part 7— Douglas Brinkley’s new improved bogus statements: Last Monday would have been the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks.

The occasion has produced an instructive display. We’ll call it, “Professors gone wild.”

One such professor is Douglas Brinkley. In the year 2000, he wrote a biography of Mrs. Parks for a prestigious publisher, Penguin.

Brinkley is one of our most visible public intellectual historians. On February 4, he appeared on CNN to discuss John Kerry, about whom he wrote a campaign biography in 2004.

It would have been Mrs. Parks’ birthday. While she had him, Ashleigh Banfield asked Brinkley about Mrs. Parks—and Brinkley made several extremely peculiar statements.

One more professor had now gone wild. Here’s how the exchange began:
BANFIELD (2/4/13): So I would be remiss if I didn't use this opportunity while you're on live with me to just show, quickly, a very long list of all the books that you have written. And one of them happens to be the biography of Rosa Parks. And today is, would be Rosa Parks 100th birthday. And there's a commemorative stamp that's being released today.

It's a significant moment in U.S. history. What are some of the more surprising things that you learned about Rosa Parks in all of your research for the biography?

BRINKLEY: Well, I'm here in Detroit. We're celebrating her 100th birthday. I'm actually wearing a Rosa Parks stamp. We just had an unveiling of it. Her bus—the famous December 1, 1955 bus—is at the Henry Ford Museum here in Detroit.

What people don't know about Mrs. Parks is, it wasn't just she was a tired seamstress. She was a civil rights activist, she was the secretary for the NAACP. And she was feisty.
So far, so good! Brinkley recited a standard refrain, advancing the same point he stressed in his 2000 biography. The woman who refused to relinquish her seat “wasn't just a tired seamstress,” he told the highly excited Banfield. That woman was also “a civil rights activist, secretary for the NAACP” (Montgomery branch).

Brinkley had stressed those themes in his 2000 book. In the book, he offered one of the roughly three million debunkings of the “tired seamstress” tale.

These debunkings date at least to 1977, when Howell Raines debunked this story in his history of the civil rights movement, My Soul is Rested. But Brinkley himself had debunked the myth in his 2000 book. He had stressed the lifetime activism of Mrs. Parks; at one point, he even said the myth around her had “usurped her reality as a radical activist.” He had cited the sexism and chauvinism she encountered within the movement.

But that was then and this was now. Now, there was a new historian in town, the somewhat doctrinaire Professor Jeanne Theoharis.

Theoharis was making herself a hero, in part by pretending that no one else had ever debunked these stories before. Perhaps for that reason, Brinkley made several very peculiar statements as he continued with Banfield.

Two of his statements flew in the face of his own book about Mrs. Parks. Where do our “facts” (and our legends) come from? To get an idea, just read this passage, as Brinkley helped Banfield understand how “feisty” Mrs. Parks was:
BRINKLEY (continuing directly): You know, once Martin Luther King was in Birmingham with her and a guy ran up on stage and smacked King in the face, and King just dropped his hands to show nonviolence: “I won't swing back.” Rosa Parks administered aspirin and a Coca-Cola to Dr. King. But in an interview with me she said, You know what, at that day, I thought Martin was crazy with this nonviolence. I would have punched that guy back in the face.

She was not just this pacifist type of person. In fact, here in Detroit, she was very close, became close to Malcolm X and some of the black power movement. But also she was a part of, a deaconess in the AME church, which is the African Methodist Episcopalian Church, and was a Buddhist later in life. She was—believed in kind of one love, universalist themes and spent her whole life really trying to help young people.

BANFIELD: It's fascinating. Great reading. The anecdotes are remarkable and that's particularly a favorite. Doug Brinkley, good to see you. Thank you. And happy birthday, Rosa Parks!
The professor made several peculiar statements—statements which fly in the face of what he wrote in his biography of Mrs. Parks. On the brighter side, his peculiar statements kept him in line with the emerging myths and fables about Mrs. Parks.

The professor had kept himself current! Here’s how:

Uh-oh! From the second statement we have highlighted, many viewers probably got the idea that Mrs. Parks became “close,” or even “very close,” to Malcolm X when she lived in Detroit. Indeed, that’s what Brinkley explicitly said.

How strange! A reader finds nothing resembling that claim in Brinkley’s biography of Mrs. Parks, the very book Banfield had mentioned. In his book, Brinkley cited Mrs. Parks’ “admiration for Malcolm X,” quoting some of the remarks she made about Malcolm in her own 1992 book. (To read those remarks in full, just click here.)

But in that same 1992 book, Mrs. Parks said she met Malcolm only once, and then just briefly, just one week before he was killed. In no way did she say that she “became close to Malcolm,” possibly very close.

Let’s be fair! In his own 2000 book, Brinkley spoke a bit more explicitly than he did on CNN. In his book, he wrote that Mrs. Parks “became closer to him intellectually” (our emphasis) after Malcolm “quit the Nation of Islam and develop[ed] a less bigoted view of whites.” He said she read a great deal about Malcolm.

Mrs. Parks became closer to Malcolm intellectually! But as the professor began going wild, he made a different remark to Banfield, giving a different impression. As he did, he fell in line with a developing line about Mrs. Parks:

Mrs. Parks grew very close to Malcolm! He was her personal hero!

Who knows? Perhaps this statement to Banfield was a simple mistake, a failure to clarify fully. But Brinkley’s first peculiar statement to Banfield is much harder to wish away. We refer to Brinkley’s account of Dr. King’s refusal to fight back against a crazed assailant.

Speaking to Banfield, Brinkley gave the impression that Mrs. Parks thought King’s reaction was foolish—perhaps even “crazy.” Brinkley even seemed to quote Mrs. Parks when he spoke with Banfield. (In an excess of courtesy, we’ve left quotation marks out of our transcript.) But the impression Brinkley gave was quite plain: Mrs. Parks, who grew very close to Malcolm, thought Dr. King was foolish when he refused to fight!

We won’t pretend to tell you what Mrs. Parks actually thought of that incident. You can read her own account in her 1992 book—and no, she didn’t say anything which resembles Brinkley’s account.

We will show you what Brinkley wrote in his own biography of Mrs. Parks. Below, you see the way he described that same incident in his Penguin book.

As Brinkley explains in his book, the attack on Dr. King occurred “at the 1962 SCLC convention in Birmingham, at which James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi occupied everyone’s mind.” In the following passage, the professor explains what Mrs. Parks thought of Dr. King’s reaction:
BRINKLEY (pages 183-184): As [Dr. King] closed the convention by recapping its proceedings and reminding the participants of upcoming fund-raisers in New York, a white man from the audience suddenly rushed the stage and punched the preacher in the face. Staggering backward, clearly dizzy from the initial blow, King refused to defend himself even as his assailant continued to hit him. A startled Septima Clark, along with Parks and the rest of the assemblage, marveled at the way King just dropped his hands “like a newborn baby” and stared calmly at his attacker. When several SCLC delegates jumped onto the stage to apprehend the man, King waved them away, shouting, “Don’t touch him! We have to pray for him.”

It was a frightening yet uplifting moment for Parks, who was sitting near the stage. “That, for many of us, was proof that Dr. King believed so completely in nonviolence that it was even stronger than his instinct to protect himself from attack,” she said later. King kept talking softly to his assailant—who it would later be revealed was an American Nazi Party member angry that black entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. had married a white woman—as he was led away. Parks immediately rushed backstage to attend to King, giving him two Bayer aspirin and a Coca-Cola—her remedy for headaches—and consoling him while he pressed an ice pack to his throbbing head. King refused to press charges, although Birmingham’s chief of police, Eugene “Bull” Connor, did, from fear of bad press. Parks glowed decades later: “I was so proud of Dr. King. His restraint was more powerful than a hundred fists.”
Brinkley is currently employed by Rice. We can’t help wondering what that university’s president, David Leebron, thinks when he sees a famous employee behaving this way on TV.

In his book, Brinkley paints a thoroughly different picture from the picture he handed to Banfield. In his book, Brinkley seems to describe Mrs. Parks’ admiration for Dr. King’s refusal to fight back or defend himself.

“It was an uplifting moment for Parks,” Brinkley writes in his book. He then includes a direct quotation from Mrs. Parks’ account of the incident in her own book (“That, for many of us, was proof...”). And then, he quotes Mrs. Parks again. Presumably, this second quotation comes from Brinkley’s interviews with Mrs. Parks, since he says she glowed as she said it.

“I was so proud of Dr. King,” the professor quotes Mrs. Parks saying. “His restraint was more powerful than a hundred fists.”

We can always struggle and strain to reconcile these accounts. It’s always possible that Mrs. Parks said something to Brinkley which resembles the statement he recalled for Banfield. It’s always possible that she thought something like that in real time, then came to reconsider—although she didn’t describe such a reaction in her own book, and Brinkley included no such notion in his own biography.

Everything is possible! That said, the impression Brinkley gave to Banfield completely contradicts the impression advanced in his Penguin book—and the contradiction between the two accounts goes even deeper than we have so far described. In his book, Brinkley frames this famous incident as an example of the way Mrs. Parks’ “nurturing demeanor” brought “a much-needed gentility to the [SCLC’s] often contentious gatherings.” In his conversation with Banfield, Mrs. Parks’ reaction to the incident illustrates her little-known “feisty” side.

“It was an uplifting moment for Parks!” At least, that’s the way the story was told when Brinkley published his book. But uh-oh! Thirteen years later, there was a new professor in town—and a new portrait of Mrs. Parks was suddenly gaining purchase.

For whatever reason, Brinkley now told this famous old story in an all-new-and-improved, different way. One of his renderings must be a bit of a fraud. It seems clear that Brinkley is.

Mrs. Parks grew very close to Malcolm—and she thought Dr. King was crazy! Where do our “facts” and our legends come from?

Last week, with our professors gone wild, that question was partially answered.

Tomorrow: Professors gone wild right on page one! What Mrs. Parks “liked to say!”


  1. It's a conspiracy to create a myth that there has been a myth -- or something like that, I suppose. I'm not sure how you follow the money on this one. If there's a conspiracy, it's hard to see the evil that must be exposed. But really: another 2000 words because Brinkley's comments in 45 seconds of air time didn't coincide perfectly with what he wrote about 14 years ago? It's not possible that he picked up new information that gave it a different slant that many years later?

  2. Brinkley is a personable guy who always has interesting things to say about history and always from a pleasing political perspective. However, he was once a partner or protoge of Stephen Ambrose, the historian who cranked out books like Ford cranked out Model-Ts and then one day was caught in an (accidental?) act of plagiarism.

    It wasn't so much the so-called plagiarism that hurt, as I recall, as the revelation that his best-selling highly regarded books were to a large extent the slapped-together efforts of unpaid graduate assistants with overheated Xerox machines.

    Whenever I see Brinkley on TV and consider his prolific output I can't help but wonder whether he takes a page (no pun intended) from his former Mentor's methodologies. It's not fair, but every time he puts out another fat book I'm immediately taken back to that image of Ambrose with a pile of books from the library, a copier, and many rolls of quarters.