ROSA PARKS AT 100: Who in the world was Rosa Parks!


Part 4—What does it mean to be quiet: Charles Blow gets credit for one thing:

In last Saturday’s column about Rosa Parks, he quoted Professor Jeanne Theoharis correctly.

Theoharis has written a fascinating book about Mrs. Parks. It’s a book we strongly recommend—with several very strong cautions.

Near the end of Saturday’s column, Blow quoted a passage from Theoharis’ opening pages. In the Introduction to her new book, the professor complains about the way Mrs. Parks was portrayed at the time of her death:
BLOW (2/2/13): 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.

As Theoharis writes: “Held up as a national heroine but stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice, the Parks who emerged was a self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption.”

Fortunately, this book seeks to restore Parks’s wholeness, even at the risk of stirring unease.
Blow quotes Theoharis correctly, adding the claim that Mrs. Parks was “sanitized and sugarcoated” at the time of her death. He says the professor is trying to restore Mrs. Parks’ wholeness.

Unfortunately, the part of Theoharis’ book he is quoting is deeply misleading and doctrinaire—and perhaps just a bit dishonest. For example:

Using Nexis, we can’t find any account of Mrs. Parks’ life which characterized her as “not angry.” In her endnotes, Theoharis never provides a single source for this alleged description of Mrs. Parks—though readers may get the impression that it appeared “in nearly every account.”

In a paragraph-long endnote, Theoharis does source some of the phrases she puts inside quotes in the passage we have highlighted. But she completely skips other such phrases, including “not angry” and “never raised her voice.” For unknown reasons, she also sources other phrases which don't appear in her text.

In our view, that endnote should be studied as an example of academic malpractice. In the endnote, a highly doctrinaire professor attempts to justify an absurd mischaracterization—a characterization of the way Mrs. Parks was portrayed “in nearly every account” at the time of her death.

Since columnist Blow, in his turn, sanitized Theoharis a tad, it might be worth examining the fuller passage he’s quoting. In the Introduction to her book, Theoharis mentions the way tens of thousands of people sought to honor Mrs. Parks at the time of her death. Then, she draws a point of contrast:
THEOHARIS (pages vii-viii): Despite those powerful visions and labors, the women who emerged in the public tributes bore only a fuzzy resemblance to Rosa Louise Parks. Described by the New York Times as “the accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement,” 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.” Her public contribution as “the mother of the movement” was repeatedly defined by one solitary act on the bus on a long-ago December day and linked to her quietness. Held up as a national heroine but stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice, the Parks who emerged was a self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption.
Theoharis goes on to offer various complaints about the way Parks was described and honored. Example: According to Theoharis, Mrs. Parks was permitted to lay in state at the Capitol Building as a way of distracting the public from what had happened during Hurricane Katrina. (Or something like that.)

So it goes when fiery professors help us rubes understand the real souls of various folk. (To read the full Introduction to Theoharis’ book, just click this.)

Blow omitted Theoharis’ criticism of the New York Times, perhaps for obvious reasons. But in her Introduction, Theoharis keeps stressing one key complaint: In the various accounts of her life, Mrs. Parks was often described as “quiet.”

“The Rosa Parks who surfaced in the deluge of public commentary was, in nearly every account, characterized as ‘quiet,’” Theoharis says. That statement is greatly misleading, but it isn’t exactly wrong. Even in the lengthy profiles which stressed Parks’ courage and activism, she was frequently described as “quiet” at some point in the proceedings. In Elaine Woo’s report in the Los Angeles Times, Mrs. Parks remembered her grandfather keeping a gun by his side to protect the family from the Klan. But right at the start of the piece, Mrs. Parks was described like this:
WOO (10/25/05): Her arrest for violating Alabama's bus segregation laws galvanized Montgomery's blacks, who boycotted the city's buses for 381 days until the U.S. Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional.

"Her legacy was her quiet dignity and instinctive rage against injustice," Rep. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) told the Times on Monday night. "What she determined on the spot was that her dignity would not allow her to be treated unjustly."
In the later years of her life, Mrs. Parks spent a great deal of time in Los Angeles. Rep. Watson remembered her for her “quiet dignity”—and also for her “instinctive rage against injustice.”

Why was Mrs. Parks “characterized as quiet” in so many accounts? In part for this reason: Again and again, that’s the way she was described by the people who knew her. Example:

In 1965, the newly-elected Rep. John Conyers hired Mrs. Parks to work in his Detroit congressional office, rescuing her from the financial distress into which she had fallen after her refusal to stand. She worked for Conyers for more than twenty years.

From the opening paragraph of Theoharis’ book, Conyers is pictured as one of the righteous men of the story. But this is the way Rep. Conyers described Mrs. Parks, whom he actually knew, at the time of her death:

“She was very humble, she was soft-spoken. But inside she had a determination that was quite fierce.”

Conyers, who actually knew Mrs. Parks, described her in the very ways Theoharis finds objectionable—though he too contrasted her soft-spoken humility with her fierce determination. When Conyers spoke with Amy Goodman for Democracy Now, he quickly used the term “quiet” to describe Mrs. Parks, then provided more detail in response to a question:
GOODMAN (10/25/05): What are the adjectives you would use to describe Rosa Parks?

CONYERS: She was a humble person. That’s the first term, I think, that would come to mind. Also, that she was very resolute.


And I can’t help but marvel at the fact that Rosa Parks essentially had a saint-like quality. And I use that term advisedly, because she never raised her voice. She was not an emotional person in terms of expressing anger or rage or vindictiveness. But she was resolute.
The first term that came to mind was “humble!” Also, Mrs. Parks “never raised her voice”—although she was resolute.

In her paragraph-length endnote, Theoharis fails to cite Rep. Conyers for describing Mrs. Parks as humble and soft-spoken. Despite her academic training, the professor doesn’t tell us where the phrase “never raised her voice” came from, even though it’s in the passage she is pretending to source.

According to Nexis, that phrase came from Rep. Conyers, and from no one else, at the time of Mrs. Parks’ death—though almost everyone who ever knew or met Mrs. Parks described her as quiet, soft-spoken.

We're sorry, but by almost all accounts, Mrs. Parks was unusually “quiet.” Often, this was described as the very element which explained her unusual power. That’s how the Rev. Joseph Lowery framed it when he spoke with Jeffrey Brown on the NewsHour:

BROWN (10/25/05): Rev. Lowery, she was not the first person, I read today, who was arrested for defying the segregation laws, but she became the test case. You knew her at the time. What made her the right person for that moment in history?

LOWERY: Well, I think there are two reasons. One, I believe God chose Rosa Parks for this particular role in history. And, secondly, she was probably the most unlikely person.

When Martin called me, I was in Mobile at the time, pastoring a church and leading the movement there. And I was called and said the boycott was on, and it had been triggered by Rosa Parks.

And I said, “You mean Miss Parks who works with the NAACP?” And they said yes.

She was such a quiet person. She was a gentle spirit that let loose a powerful force against racial injustice, and I think that factor alone inspired the people of Montgomery who nevertheless felt personally involved in the discrimination of the bus. She was an unlikely person, but she became an instrument of the people's will in that community who were tired.
Like so many other people, Rev. Lowery seemed to link Mrs. Parks' quiet nature to her unusual power.

No one can speak for Mrs. Parks—not Rev. Lowery, not Rep. Conyers, not a doctrinaire professor who is busy recasting the world. But in 1995, Mrs. Parks spoke for herself, writing a book in which she described her religious faith.

She called her book “Quiet Strength,” using the term the professor found most objectionable at the time of her death.

Professor Theoharis has a world to construct; unfortunately, Blow quoted her accurately. In the process, he created a ludicrous portrait of the way Mrs. Parks was portrayed at the time of her death. That said, there is no question that Mrs. Parks was often described as a deeply quiet person. This inner stillness was widely described as the source of the sense of strength and devotion she conveyed to a wide range of people.

The civil rights movement understood the power of quiet—of the simple refusal to move. ("I Shall Not Be Moved.") So did Gandhi, on whose wisdom Dr. King wisely fed. That said, fiery professors with worlds to construct may reinvent a quiet person to serve their doctrinaire ends.

Everybody seemed to say that Mrs. Parks was quiet—unusually quiet, powerfully quiet. Mrs. Parks almost seemed to say it herself when she wrote Quiet Strength.

Tomorrow: Amy Goodman says she remembers—and that attempted assault


  1. This is now about 3500 words devoted to ridiculing an author and a columnist because they were not as precise as they could have been in describing the state of national understanding of Rosa Parks and the incident.

    Whatever myths there were about her, they were built up over the course of 50 years before her death. TDH can Nexis or Google his way to ten thousand articles around the time of her death that were more accurate about her activism, and it would do absolutely nothing to disprove the existence of a myth of a singular act of courage by an ordinary and unimportant person on her way home from work.

    Here is the back cover of perhaps the most prominent biography about Parks, written in 2000 by Douglas Brinkley, one of the most prolific biographers of our time: "Rosa Parks, an African-American seamstress in 1955 Alabama, had no idea she was changing history when, work-weary, she refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. Now she is immortalized for the defiance that sent her to jail. . . . Here in Rosa Parks are the quiet dignity, hope, courage and humor that have made this twentieth century everywoman a living legend.. . .”

    Is that evidence of a myth about Rosa Parks or what? Let's see: "seamstress," "no idea she was changing history," "work-weary," "everywoman." Where are the words "lifelong activist"? Geez, Rosa Parks herself in interviews expressly acknowledged the existence of the myth. So what, then, is the point of these 3500 words? Given a commonly-noted premise that the weaker the argument the more words are needed to make it, isn't the answer that there isn't much point except fulfilling a need to attack people TDH doesn't like?

  2. Dang, Urban, they should hire you as an editor at Beacon Press. You're finding better support for the author's argument than she does herself. The fact remains, however, that Somerby has done a pretty good job here of documenting Theoharis's cherry picking of sources. (Caught her red handed, if you'll pardon the pun.) If you go on Amazon they trying to shill the book as follows:

    "The definitive political biography of Rosa Parks examines her six decades of activism, challenging perceptions of her as an accidental actor in the civil rights movement."

    If Theohardis is truly claiming the status for her book as a major revision, without crediting the massive body of literature that laid the ground work for her efforts, that that is a pretty serious scholarly faux pas.