Reidblog [The Reid Report blog]

Think at your own risk.
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Hush that fuss...
"Ah, hah, hush that fuss ... Everybody move to the back of the bus..." -- Outkast, "Rosa Parks"

The "mother of the civil rights movement,"Rosa Parks, has died at the age of 92. She lived a life that was as mythic as it was mysterious. The latter obviously fed the former, with the mythology of a spontaneous refusal to give up a bus seat to a white man, by a middle aged seamstress whose feat hurt, which just happened to touch off the Montgomery bus boycotts and launch the career of Martin Luther King Jr., defying evidence that her pioneering moment of refusal was a well-orchestrated masterstroke of public relations by the NAACP. Ms. Parks maintained until the end that her refusal to give up her seat was in fact spontaneous (though she allowed that it was intended as a protest, not just the result of "tired feet.") Whether or not she pre-planned it, once her arrest occurred, the NAACP legal team seized on the opportunity to make a larger case against bus segregation in Alabama. It's hard to believe they were not either lying in wait for such a case, or actively coordinating with groups that could make it happen.)

[The people around Ms. Parks have faltered at times in supposed efforts to maintain the mythology -- a low point being the lawsuit filed a couple of years ago against the rap group Outkast for naming a song after the civil rights pioneer, which seems more like an attempt to take financial advantage of Ms. Parks by the filers...]

The mythology has been helpful in sorting out the good guys and bad guys in the civil rights struggle, and it helped at the time to advance the movement's goal of shaming the American public into abandoning Jim Crow laws. But during that time, the movement was a lot more caustic, and elicited much stronger government approbrium than we generally learn in history class. In fact, civil rights leaders were routinely accused of being communists -- including King,
and Rosa Parks, who was pictured with King -- the Southern Christian Leadership Conference founder, attending a 1957 training class put on by the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, TN -- Highlander was an interracial organization founded by a member of the Communist Party, which sought to train and organize textile workers (Parks was a seamstress) and others to challenge both unfair work rules and Jim Crow segregation laws through organized strikes and
protests. The FBI surveilled the school, which had ties to Eleanor Roosevelt and was accused of "fifth column" activities, among others, and it also spied on King, and one would have to assume -- Ms. Parks -- during the red-baiting era of the 1950s and beyond. (Parks reportedly attended
Highlander trainings
in 1955, 1956 and 1957).

Keep in mind that Parks wasn't the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus -- in fact, she was the third that year (that we know of). One of the first women to refuse, Claudette Colvin, then a 15-year-old, later became one of the four plaintiffs in the landmark Browder vs. Gale case which struck down Montgomery's segregation laws, later upheld by the Supreme Court.) But because the NAACP understood hers to be the most marketable case (the other two women had "issues" ranging from unwed pregnancy to alleged family alcoholism -- not to mention the fact that they were of a lower economic class than Parks, and darker-skinned, and therefore less "marketable"...), and because it fit into a larger narrative of organized protest tactics tied to groups seen as being in dangerous collusion with labor, "commies" and other threats from the left, Parks' refusel was a Big event. It also carried larger implications of Black "insurgency" against the Jim Crow system, and the authorities' reaction played into the hands of groups like the NAACP and SCLC, essentially opening the door for them to come and organize in Alabama.

The movement's ties to "leftist" political groups proved to be an albatross around its neck all through the 1960s, and charges of communism continued to dog King until his murder in 1968. (Highlander still exists as a research and educational foundation today, though the school was closed in 1960 under a cloud of accusations of communism. Read the FBI dossier on the school here.) I know from African-American friends of my mothers who were around at that time and even before the 1950s, that the Communist Party was seen by many Blacks as a friendly institution willing to help them win full equality -- not as either threatening or anti-American, and so more than a few folk signed on. Still, those ties continue to be a sore spot with some conservative critics of King and the movement he popularized. It helps to remember that the civil rights movement itself -- broadly drawn from the late 1940s until the early 1970s, took place in the context of the Cold War ... a fact that washed over everything that could be called "liberal" politics. ...

Whatever the messy truths behind it, there's no denying Parks' pivotal role in launching the modern civil rights movement. Her courage and resolve -- and her mythology -- will be her legacy. Rest in peace, Ms. Parks. You are and were a fascinating, complicated soul.

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posted by JReid @ 11:26 AM  
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