Rosa Parks died yesterday at age 92. Over the days to come, we’ll hear a lot of very-much deserved prasie for Parks’ refusal to abide bigotry and her courage in the service of a cause. Unfortunately, we’ll also hear a new round of recitations of the stubborn myth that Parks was an anonymous, apolitical woman who spontaneously refused to yield to authority and in so doing inspired a movement. The truth, as Aldon Morris wrote in his book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, is that a decade earlier
in the 1940s Mrs. Parks had refused several times to comply with segregation rules on the buses. In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks was ejected from a bus for failing to comply. The very same bus driver who ejected her that time was the one who had her arrested on December 1, 1955…She began serving as secretary for the local NAACP in 1943 and still held that post when arrested in 1955…In the early 1940s Mrs. Parks organized the local NAACP Youth Council…During the 1950s the youth in this organization attempted to borrow books from a white library. They also took rides and sat in the front seats of segregated buses, then returned to the Youth Council to discuss their acts of defiance with Mrs. Parks.
This history is not hidden. But the Times’ obituary describes Parks’ arrest nonetheless as an event which “turned a very private woman into a reluctant symbol and torchbearer…” Parks was certainly reluctant to see too personal valoration of her as heroine distract from the broader movement. But she was not private about her politics. And her refusal to give up her bus seat was nothing new for her. As she would later tell an interviewer, “My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day.”
The myth of Parks as a pre-political seamstress who was too physically worn out to move has such staying power not because there’s any factual basis but because it appeals to an all-too popular narrative about how social change happens in America: When things get bad enough, an individual steps up alone, unsupported and unmediated, and spontaneously resists. And then an equally spontaneous movement follows. Such a myth makes good TV, but it’s poor history.
Movement-building takes hard work, no matter how righteous the cause or how desperate the circumstances.
The pivotal moments of the 60’s civil rights movement, as Morris recounts in his book, were not random stirrings or automatic responses. Most of them were carefully planned events which followed months of organizing and were conceived with an eye to political tactics and media imagery. There were even some long meetings involved.
That shouldn’t be seen as a dirty little secret, because strategic organizing and planned imagery shouldn’t be seen as signs of moral impurity. Organizations, like the people in them, each have their faults (Ella Baker was frequently and justifiably furious with the sexism and condescension of much of CORE’s leadership). But the choice of individuals to work together and find common cause in common challenges doesn’t become less pure or less honest or less noble when they choose to do it through political organizations. And there’s nothing particularly progressive about a historical perspective in which Rosa Parks’ defiance of racism is made less genuine by the knowledge that she was secretary of the NAACP.
The myth of Rosa Parks as a private apolitical seamstress, like the myth of Martin Luther King as a race-blind moderate, has real consequences as we face the urgent civil rights struggles of today. Seeing acts of civil disobedience like Parks’ as spontaneous responses to the enormity of the injustice justifies the all-too common impulses to refuse our support for organized acts of resistance and regard organized groups as inherently corrupt. Those are impulses people like Rosa Parks had to confront and overcome amongst members of her community long before she ever made national headlines for refusing to give up her seat on the bus.