October 25, 2005

"It was just a day like any other day"

From the New York Times' obituary of Rosa Parks:
Over the years myth tended to obscure the truth about Mrs. Parks. One legend had it that she was a cleaning woman with bad feet who was too tired to drag herself to the rear of the bus. Another had it that she was a "plant" by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The truth, as she later explained, was that she was tired of being humiliated, of having to adapt to the byzantine rules, some codified as law and others passed on as tradition, that reinforced the position of blacks as something less than full human beings.

"She was fed up," said Elaine Steele, a longtime friend and executive director of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. "She was in her 40's. She was not a child. There comes a point where you say, 'No, I'm a full citizen, too. This is not the way I should be treated.' "
Right. Similar "caveats" (Parks was a NAACP plant!) seem to be wending their way through the internet, and I'm still not sure what the "point" of these myths is; in truth, they don't matter very much. Yes, Parks was handpicked—agreed to be handpicked—by civil rights leaders to become the poster child for the Montgomery bus boycotts. So what? That's always made her even more of a hero, I think; to have agreed to set her life aside and stand at the forefront of a movement. From the obit: "Her act of civil disobedience, what seems a simple gesture of defiance so many years later, was in fact a dangerous, even reckless move in 1950's Alabama. In refusing to move, she risked legal sanction, even harm." To put it lightly. No amount of mythmaking can denigrate that.

As many people know, nine months before Parks refused to move, a fifteen-year-old—fifteen!—named Claudette Colvin did much the same thing on a Montgomery bus; the case she ended up filing in court along with three other women, Browder v. Gayle, eventually became the one in which the Supreme Court's struck down bus segregation. Initially, the NAACP wanted to organize a boycott around Colvin's case, but backed off because they didn't think she made for a suitable enough poster-child—Colvin was allegedly several months pregnant, and "prone to outbursts." Or perhaps the timing just wasn't right—mass movements are always sensitive to timing. (Baton Rouge had staged the first bus boycotts two years earlier, but that had been forgotten.) Parks, as a member of the NAACP, was Colvin's mentor, and sat in on the decision to boycott or not after the younger girl was arrested, and was eventually inspired by her example to do the same nine months later. That this was how a movement sprouted—with two women inspired by each other—is no less sweeping a story than the traditional tale of one brave person sparking a wildfire.

Presumably those civil rights leaders were right that the nation needed to see Rosa Parks—"one of the finest citizens of Montgomery"—at the head of the boycotts rather than Colvin, who might have been more easily be slimed by reactionaries who think a movement can be discredited by attacking the private lives of the people who lead it. Not much has changed in the last fifty years, in that regard. At any rate, none of this can minimize what Parks did; that wouldn't be possible.
-- Brad Plumer 1:45 PM || ||