ROSA PARKS AT 100: Where do factoids come from!


Part 6—Mrs. Parks and Malcolm X: Yesterday, Paul Krugman asked an excellent question, right in the headline of this blog post.

We’d call it the question of the age. Krugman’s headline said this:

Where Do “Facts” Come From?

The bogus “fact” Krugman was trying to source was a claim about federal spending—the claim that federal spending has risen 37 percent under Obama. Using Nexis, we can’t find anyone making that claim on TV or in print in recent weeks. But as a general matter, Krugman was asking a deeply important question.

An amazing amount of our national discourse is driven by invented facts and quotations—or by forbidden facts, the true facts we aren’t allowed to hear. And yes, we “progressives” invent facts too! Consider what happened when Professor Theoharis appeared on The One True Liberal Channel.

On February 2, Theoharis appeared with Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss her new book about the life of Rosa Parks. As she introduced Theoharis, Harris-Perry mentioned a “favorite factoid:”
HARRIS-PERRY (2/2/13): I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, but be honest. When you hear the name Rosa Parks, what do you think of? You think of the woman who sat in the front of the bus, right? The story of the seamstress who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded Montgomery bus. It’s a staple of civil rights lore and children’s books.

But now, can you tell me one other thing about Rosa Parks?

All right. Yes, see, for everyone who is ready to go at me on Twitter, don’t be offended, but all I am saying is that if all you know about Rosa Parks is that one moment, you are missing the big vast thing that is in fact Rosa Parks. Because yes, she refused to give up her seat, but what else do we know about her?

How many of us know that she was thrown off the bus a decade earlier by the same driver? That she had been working with the NAACP for more than a decade trying to document brutality against African-Americans? Or one of my favorite factoids, her personal hero: Malcolm X.

There is so much more to the life of Rosa Parks that goes beyond the bus, and in an incredible story told in a new book, "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" by Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College. She joins me now.

I have been waiting for this book for a couple of years. I am so excited that it is finally out. Tell my viewers out in Nerdland what are some of the things they don’t know about Rosa Parks that they need to know.
Harris-Perry flattered her viewers with her reference to Nerdland. (On MSNBC, we liberals are relentlessly told that we’re smart.) But before Theoharis even spoke, Harris-Perry had cited her “favorite factoid:”

According to this second professor, Mrs. Parks’ “personal hero” had been Malcolm X! As factoids go, that’s the professor’s favorite!

For starters, let us say this: There is no reason why Mrs. Parks shouldn’t have admired Malcolm. For ourselves, we don’t disagree with a word she said about him in her autobiography, Rosa Parks: My Story.

But was Malcolm really Mrs. Parks’ personal hero? The claim appears early in Theoharis’ book, the part of the book her interviewers typically seem to have read. In her Introduction, even before Chapter One, this intriguing statement appears:
THEOHARIS (page xiii): One of the greatest distortions of the Parks fable has been the ways it made her meek and missed the lifetime of progressive politics and the resolute political sensibility that identified Malcolm X as her personal hero. The many strands of black protest and radicalism ran throughout her life...
Theoharis says nothing more about Malcolm at this point; the highlighted claim isn’t sourced at this point. Beyond that, this is the only time she uses the term “personal hero” in the course of her book, although she returns to the general claim about Malcolm later in the book (see below).

Presumably, this is the source of the favorite factoid to which Harris-Perry referred. The factoid may truly be a favorite. But is the factoid true?

As you will see, the sourcing for this particular claim is remarkably weak. That said, what did Mrs. Parks say about Malcolm when she spoke in her own voice?

As noted, Mrs. Parks published an autobiography in 1992. Alhough it was aimed at young adults, it provides a fascinating account of her life and her thinking.

In the book, she discussed her view of Malcolm at some length. This is what she wrote:
MRS. PARKS (1992): The same year I started working for John Conyers [1965], Malcolm X was shot. I didn’t know him, even though the home base of the Black Muslims was in Detroit, where they had their Temple Number 1. By the time we moved to Detroit, he was in New York heading the big temple there. The Black Muslims preached hatred of white people, and I never went along with hatred of anybody. But the Muslims were very successful at converting men in jail and getting them to lead clean lives after they got out. They were very serious about black people doing for themselves, having their own businesses and strong family relationships.

Malcolm X was converted to the Muslims while in jail. He had been a career criminal who went by the nickname “Detroit Red.” Becoming a Black Muslim changed his whole life. But Malcolm X went to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where the original Muslim religion has its base, and he learned that Muslims in other parts of the world weren’t racist and didn’t preach hatred of white people. He left the Black Muslims. When he was shot in February 1965, he was trying to build a new organization that did not preach hatred.

I met him the week before he died. He had come to Detroit to speak, and I was sitting in the front row. His home in New York had been firebombed and all his clothes had been damaged by water and smoke, but he came to Detroit anyway because he’d made a commitment. I spoke to him and he autographed the program for me. He had changed his manner of speaking and the way he expressed himself. I had heard him speak before, but now his message was altogether different. I had a lot of admiration for him, considering his background and where he had come from and his having had to struggle so hard just to reach the point of being respected as a leader of the Black Muslims. He was a very brilliant man. Even when he was with the Black Muslims, I didn’t disagree with him altogether.
“Even when he was with the Black Muslims, I didn’t disagree with him altogether.” Does it sound like she was calling Malcolm her personal hero? Mrs. Parks goes on for two more paragraphs, commenting on Malcolm’s views about nonviolence:
MRS. PARKS (continuing directly): I remember him talking about violence. He spoke about the expression “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” which is what Jesus Christ said when he was on the cross. Dr. King used to say that black people should receive brutality with love, and I believed that was a goal to work for. But I couldn’t reach that point in my mind at all, even though I know that the strategy Dr. King used probably was the better one for the masses of people in Montgomery than trying to retaliate without any weapons or ammunition.

Malcolm wasn’t a supporter of nonviolence either. Referring to what Dr. King liked to say about people not knowing what they do, he used to say of the white racists who attacked nonviolent demonstrators, “Not only did they know what they were doing, but they were experts at it.”
Some of that is a bit unclear; some of it is somewhat self-contradictory. Otherwise, we don’t disagree with any of that. Malcolm was clearly a very brilliant man; his drive for justice was highly admirable. Beyond that, we admire Mrs. Parks for the breadth of her thinking about the various routes to justice for blacks at that time.

But in that passage, Mrs. Parks discussed Malcolm in her own voice. She could have called him her personal hero or something like that, but she didn’t—and it’s hard to see how someone could take that meaning from her nuanced discussion. More specifically, it’s clear that Mrs. Parks said in that passage that she only came to admire Malcolm fully after he renounced the “hatred of white people” with which he is often associated, especially when we treat it as strange or surprising that Malcolm would have been admired by a person like Mrs. Parks.

Theoharis is aware of that passage, of course, but she doesn’t discuss it—except to suggest, at several points, that Mrs. Parks wasn’t forthcoming with her co-writer, Jim Haskins, or with Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a biography of Mrs. Parks in 2000. On the very first page of Chapter One, Theoharis establishes this predicate, which serves to explain why Mrs. Parks failed to say and do various things predicted by Theoharis’ thesis. (To read Chapter One, just click this.) Could this explain why Mrs. Parks didn’t refer to Malcolm as her hero in either one of her own two books or in her interviews with Brinkley?

Everything is possible, of course. But the failure to do so remains.

Mrs. Parks doesn’t seem to be describing Malcolm as her “personal hero” in that long passage from her own book. She seems to be describing a man for whom she had “a lot of admiration,” especially after he abandoned his “hatred of white people.” That itself is an interesting fact about Mrs. Parks, a fact which deserves full exploration.

But Theoharis floated the “personal hero” claim right in her Introduction, and Harris-Perry quickly repeated it. So where does that “favorite factoid” come from? It's a favorite, but what is the source?

The hero claim has only one source, as we learn later in Theoharis’ book. According to Theoharis (page 207): “In the 1990s, Parks shocked black nationalist lawyer Chokwe Lumumba when she told him that her hero was Malcolm X.” Theoharis describes the exchange between Lumumba and Mrs. Parks in more detail as she continues, although she never quotes anything Lumumba told her in the phone conversation she cites as her source.

That said, this is Theoharis' only source for the claim that Malcolm X was Mrs. Parks’ “personal hero.” There offers no other evidence for the claim—a claim she pushed into the Introduction of her book, which is sometimes grossly inaccurate.

Lumumba is a member of the New Orleans City Council; he’s currently running for mayor. He has had a long, impressive career. (For starters, just click here. For the record, Lumumba is “a co-founder and member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement.”)

At some point in the 1990s, did Mrs. Parks tell Lumumba that Malcolm X was her hero—nay, her personal hero? We have no earthly idea. We don’t know if Theoharis is accurately reporting her telephone conversation with Lumumba. If she is, we don’t know if Lumumba was accurately recalling his conversation with Mrs. Parks. Nor do we know if a single comment in a long life can be taken to establish such a fact—or even a favorite factoid.

We do know this: By any respectable scholarly standard, Theoharis is offering a very weak source for the “favorite factoid” Harris-Perry cheerfully chirped while suggesting it's something we need to know about Mrs. Parks. Indeed, it seems to us that her overall method is especially rank:

Gack. Theoharis never tells her readers what Mrs. Parks actually said about Malcolm, in her own voice, in the books she published in her own name. Instead, she gives us her version of something Mrs. Parks is said to have said exactly once in her life. And she never quotes the actual words of her source. Instead, she paraphrases.

As scholarship, that’s remarkably close to a gong show. We’re surprised that Brooklyn College is willing to tolerate this. Also, people who respect Mrs. Parks. Also, historians in general.

Was Malcolm X the personal hero of Rosa Parks? Did she ever say he was? Everything is possible—and in our view, Malcom was an admirable man. But this leads us to a deeper question:

Where do “facts” come from? How about favorite factoids?

Sometimes, factoids come from the lift of a driving dream—the driving dream of preferred story-lines. And good lord, the way these professors work!

Tomorrow, what Brinkley said.


  1. It takes 2100 words to argue how many angels are on the head of this pin? Whatever it takes to keep doubling down on the week-long daily criticism of Theoharis, I suppose. Parks expressly said she admired Malcolm X in many ways even when he was a Black Muslim and participated in its preaching of hate. That was the single source of her disagreement with him. Then he struck out on his own and rejected hatred before he was assassinated. In her autobiography she spent a lot of time talking about her feelings about him. Whether this means she actually did consider him her "personal hero" is a matter of interpretation, but Theoharis's conclusion from these pieces of information is not much of a stretch.

    The principle is on display again: the weaker the argument, the more words it takes to make it. That's what happens when the conclusion is predetermined.

  2. The principle is on display again: the weaker the argument, the more words it takes to make it.

    The principle?

    1. Matt in the Spellchecker:

      What a maroon.

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