ROSA PARKS, MISREMEMBERED

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.

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PET ISSUES

A characteristic comment from Kos:

we won’t have a governing majority until the energy expended in pursuing pet interests gets redirected toward getting Republicans out of power and getting Democrats — even some of the imperfect ones — elected to replace them…take a look at the new progressive organizations arising the past few years — MoveOn, the blogs, Democracy for America, National Political Hip Hop Conference, etc — all of them movement-based multi-issue organizations. That is the future of the American progressive movement. Not the single-issue groups that continue to hold their narrow interests above those of the broader movement.

What’s frustrating about comments like this is the uncritical conflation of the “broader movement” and the Democratic party. What’s a “pet issue”? Well, it’s an issue taken up by people you think could spend their time better doing something else. Since Kos’ goal – certainly an urgent and worthy one – is to replace Republican elected officials with Democratic ones, he tends to snipe at progressives who focus on pretty much anything else – be it reducing poverty or expanding civil liberties – as a higher priority. And his hammering on the all-too true point that the Right in this country has demonstrated much stronger long-term strategy than the Left over the past few decades only makes it that much more disappointing each time he makes the short-sighted argument that progressive groups which too strongly criticize or withhold support from Democrats who don’t share their values are selfish for not subordinating their cause to the goal of winning the next election. That’s not how conservatives accomplished their takeover of many of the powerful institutions in this country.

What really gets me about this particular post, though, is the way it conflates Kos’ “every left-wing group in the country should work to elect anyone to Congress who will vote for Pelosi for Speaker” critique with a critique I agree with: the left hasn’t done a sufficient job of building lasting multi-issue coalitions, and progressive activists have too often failed to see and articulate the connectedness between their causes. For Kos, the latter critique must be the former, because the only legitimate form for multi-issue cooperation to take is the Democratic party or organizations or websites mainly devoted to electing Democrats. But that’s not the view of many of the most articulate exponents of the latter critique, including the “Death of Environmentalism” essay which he rightly highlights as a crucial document (here too, I agree). In fact, the very excerpt he quotes in his post is:

Our thesis is this: the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

“What’s that,” you say, “it’s possible to have a long string of defeats under a Democratic President? (For a sobering account of just how poor a job NRDC and the Sierra Club did at cashing in on their work electing Bill Clinton, check out Randy Shaw’s Activist Handbook). So much for the idea that all progressive groups have to do to advance their causes is get Democrats elected.