The Republican Party reinforced its less-than-glowing civil rights reputation with a Sunday tweet celebrating Rosa Parks' “role in ending racism.” But that claim, which got skewered for its seeming implication that racial bigotry is now a thing of the past, reflects just one of the ways in which Rosa Parks and the civil rights struggle get misremembered in U.S. politics. More bipartisan, and maybe more insidious, is the emphasis placed on the anonymity of Parks, and the spontaneity of her historic refusal, 58 years ago yesterday, to relinquish her seat on the bus.
As historian Aldon Morris notes, long before that iconic arrest, the real Rosa Parks had already become secretary of the local NAACP, studied collective action at the Highlander School, and been kicked off a bus by the same driver she faced down that day in 1955. Parks’ Dec. 1 arrest followed the arrests of other African-American women for the same form of defiance, and a prior boycott in Baton Rouge, La.
And, as Parks wrote in her own autobiography, “People always say I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
But that’s not how Parks is often remembered. As I noted at the time, Parks’ death in 2005 was met with misleading memorials like then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist declaration her action “was not an intentional attempt to change a nation, but a singular act aimed at restoring the dignity of the individual.” Never mind that, as Morris writes in "The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement," it was Parks who founded and advised an NAACP Youth Council whose members “sat in the front seats of segregated buses” and then came back “to discuss their acts of defiance with Mrs. Parks.” According to Highlander trainer Septima Clark, Parks had previously described to others at the training center what such an arrest would look like, pledging, “I’m not going to move out of that seat.”
Perhaps the most famous act of civil disobedience in U.S. history has been recast as an out-of-nowhere act, by a “reluctant” and otherwise anonymous hero, that near-spontaneously sparked a movement -- rather than a conscious act of resistance by a committed activist that escalated and drew fuel from an already-growing movement. That myth-making matters, not only because it does a disservice to Rosa Parks, but because it warps our expectations about what true protest should look like. Just witness Wal-Mart dismissing Black Friday protesters’ plans to “Get Arrested for the Cameras,” as if truly righteous activists would be too grass-roots to call up the media. Similar charges of orchestration get leveled against fast food strikes or Occupy actions, crowding out legitimate debates about strategy or policy with ill-defined arguments over authenticity.
The fact that activists had institutional support, or that they practiced what they’d tell cops or reporters -- or that they were anything other than “normal” apolitical individuals before the moment they burst into action -- gets held against their efforts, as the premeditated actions of the moment get compared against the spontaneous movements of myth. (The way that spontaneity gets conflated with authenticity was weirdly illustrated for me back in college, when I wrote a blog post on the topic after Parks’ death, and a producer for Mike Gallagher’s right-wing radio show invited me to come on the show so Gallagher could defend Parks against my criticism. Once I explained that my blog post hadn't actually been a criticism of Parks, that invitation was withdrawn.) Meanwhile, faced with injustice, pundits ask what it will take to spur the masses to finally rise up, rather than assessing the largely thankless movement-building efforts that are or could be underway.
In that autobiography 20 years ago, Rosa Parks tried to debunk the fantasies that had been foisted upon her. But those myths – like racism – are still very much alive.