The Straight Dope on Rosa Parks

In the evening of October 24th, 2005 a wizened and demented Rosa Parks drew her last breath. Before her withered corpse was cold a thousand hagiographers had fallen to the task of burnishing her mythic persona and securing her purchase on secular sainthood. Rosa would have applauded their efforts.

The New York Times began her obituary on its front page with the standard Rosa Parks boilerplate: “Rosa Parks, a black seamstress whose refusal to relinquish her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., almost 50 years ago grew into a mythic event that helped touch off the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, died at her home yesterday in Detroit. She was 92 tears old.”

The Associated Press report of her death mimicked the Times: “Parks was a 42-year-old seamstress, riding from her work at a Montgomery department store in December 1955, when she was arrested for refusing to yield her seat near the middle of a city bus when a white man entered her section.”

A full thirty years after her signature act of passive aggression Mrs. Parks continued to nurture the common misperception that she was just an average citizen who had challenged Jim Crow on an impulse: “At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this. It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.”

To hear her tell it her act of defiance and the Montgomery bus boycott that followed her arrest were simply the spontaneous expressions of humble black folk. What really happened was more complex and not the least bit spontaneous; the entire event was stage crafted from beginning to end.

Setting the Stage

Fourteen years before the Montgomery bus boycott there was another black boycott of two bus lines in far-away Manhattan. Back in 1941 two private bus lines that served Manhattan refused to hire blacks for any position other than porter; there were 14 porters in a workforce of 3,202 workers. The Transit Workers Union refused to press for the hiring of blacks as drivers and mechanics. It was then that the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who held the pulpit of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church steered his Greater New York Coordinating Committee for Employment to join other Harlem groups in a black boycott of the Fifth Avenue Coach Co. and the New York City Omnibus Co.

Black folks didn’t give this boycott their unanimous support and the local press gave it scant coverage and unlike the Montgomery boycott it sometimes turned violent. When black youth who had been pumped up by inflammatory rhetoric at Powell’s church began stoning buses on Lenox Avenue, fifty cops were called out to disperse the crowd.

Despite its ragged nature, this boycott was successful. The two bus lines signed an agreement with Powell’s group to immediately hire 100 black drivers and 70 maintenance workers and to accept a hiring quota for blacks until the number of blacks reached seventeen percent. In the fall of 1941 the Rev. Powell became the first black member of the New York City Council. The following year he was elected to Congress.

It was as the by-then nationally-known Congressman Adam Clayton Powell that he arrived in Montgomery, Alabama in November of 1955 at the invitation of E.D. Nixon, the head of the local NAACP. After meeting with Alabama’s racially progressive Governor Jim Folsom, Powell addressed Nixon’s voter-registration-drive activists. It was at this meeting that Powell explained to the local NAACP the politics and the mechanics of the Manhattan bus boycott.

E.D. Nixon had been dreaming of a legal challenge to Jim Crow bus rules long before Powell’s visit, but he longed for a dream plaintiff to play the title role in his legal drama. Months earlier a 15-year-old girl had been arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat on a bus, but there had been a scuffle and she had been charged with assault – and besides, she was unmarried and pregnant. E.D. Nixon had passed her up as less than ideal.

Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State, had heard Powell describe his boycott and she proposed a boycott in Montgomery. “I can get my people behind it,” she had said, “We’ll start early tomorrow morning.” Nixon, a veteran organizer, agreed. It was E.D. Nixon who enlisted Martin Luther King, Jr. to be the fresh face of this boycott. All they needed now was an ideal plaintiff.

Paging Rosa Parks

The word most often used to describe Mrs. Parks is “seamstress.” It seems to fit. She stares out at us from a period sheriff’s-department booking photo looking prim and well-tailored and a bit owlish behind her ample wire-rimmed spectacles. But her level gaze belies the first impression – it is the fixed stare of someone who knows exactly what she is doing. This is a person with a purpose. In truth, Rosa Parks was not just a face in the crowd; neither was her act of civil disobedience unpremeditated. She was a seasoned political operative.

Rosa McCauley had married Raymond Parks, a barber, in 1932. He was a longtime member of the NAACP. In her autobiography she said that he was the first real activist she had ever met. She had joined her husband in working for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. In 1943 she became one of the first women to join the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. She was its secretary and youth director for several years. In the summer of 1955 Parks attended a ten-day workshop on implementing integration. A white activist had recommended her for the program.

In 1955 Montgomery’s civil rights activists, who were led by Mrs. Parks’ close friend E.D. Nixon, were eager to bring a Jim Crow case to court. Two previous arrests of women had been considered and dismissed because of the women’s less than sterling character. What the NAACP craved was a plaintiff just like Mrs. Parks, their secretary.

Though she went to her grave denying that she had boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus intending to provoke a response, the facts and details of who she was and what she did invite suspicion. Rosa Parks had been married to a political activist for twenty-three years; she had been an active participant in racial politics for twenty-three years; she was then the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP; she had been the director of the local NAACP’s youth wing; she had raised money for the defense of the arrested 15-year-old whom E.D. Nixon later dismissed as unsuitable as a plaintiff; she had many dear friends, including E.D. Nixon, who very much desired a prim and proper test-case plaintiff; she was intimately familiar with the routine of the Cleveland Avenue bus and she knew that by sitting in the front row of the “colored section” she would be asked to relinquish her seat within a couple of stops. Better still, Rosa Parks had previous experience challenging the baroque racial etiquette of the Montgomery buses: Twelve years prior to her December 1, 1955 protest she had been put off a bus for refusing to follow the rule that Negroes must exit the bus after purchasing a ticket and re-enter the bus by the rear door. She had been put off of that bus by the very same driver, James Fred Blake, whom she confronted on December 1, 1955. So Rosa Parks was not just a hapless seamstress with sore feet who only wanted to be left in peace. At 42 she was an experienced activist and an ideologue; she was someone who wanted to please her friends and to further a cause. All the jabber about a humble seamstress is just an exercise in political cosmetology. Imbuing Rosa Parks with an aura of sainthood served the NAACP’s political ends perfectly; they tailored her story to suggest that the Montgomery bus boycott was a spontaneous expression of the Negro spirit. Rosa Parks played along. This is how Rosa Parks allowed herself to become immortalized and imprisoned by The Myth of Rosa Parks.

The Myth of Rosa Parks

Once Rosa Parks became “the mother of the civil rights movement” she was wedded to her myth; once she became a cultural icon, a sacred personage to her people, she became a prisoner of other people’s expectations. Vast numbers of total strangers who had fallen in love with the simple mythic seamstress now adored the fictional person they imagined Rosa Parks to be and she, in turn, soon learned to comport herself in a manner that would not disappoint them. Henceforth she would assume the persona of the unofficially trademarked character called Rosa Parks, the little seamstress who sparked the civil rights movement.

This public misapprehension of who she really was must have rankled her a bit: She was a utopian at heart; the seamstress gig was just her day job. And yet, she was so attached to the mythic Rosa that she felt compelled to fiercely defend her stature as a secular saint as though it were a valuable commercial property. Two examples illustrate just how touchy and hair-triggered she could be in her defense of the myth of Rosa Parks.

In 1999, Rosa Parks filed a lawsuit against the hip-hop duo Outkast for imaginary violations of trademark rights to the name Rosa Parks. She claimed that the rappers had defamed her. It was all twaddle. For reasons I can’t fathom, Outkast titled their Grammy-nominated tone poem Rosa Parks. (Songs are sung; rappers don’t sing.) This poem is not about Rosa Parks and neither the word Rosa nor the word Parks appears anywhere in the lyrics. If you didn’t read the liner notes you wouldn’t even know it was titled Rosa Parks. So Outkast did not defame or even mildly criticize Rosa Parks in any way. The rap is about how uncertain the future is for rap entertainers; it opens with the four-line refrain:


Ah ha, hush that fuss
Everybody move to the back of the bus
Do you wanna bump and slump with us
We the type of people make the club get crunk

My dictionary does not include the word “crunk.” Verse one is twelve lines about two guys touring to make a living; it talks about “me and my nigga” “bull doggin hoes” and a boastful assertion about how well they are doing.

White boy translation:
Boy you sounding silly, thank [think] my Broughm [Cadillac] aint sittin pretty
Doing doughnuts [running circles] round you suckas like then [those] circles around titties
Damn we the committee [golly, we’re good at this] gone burn it down [we’re very hot]
But us gone bust you in the mouth [we’re going to make a big impression on you] with the chorus now

Then there is a repeat of the four-line refrain followed by verse two which tells about how he met a gypsy [wise woman] who “hipped me” [enlightened him] to the fact that “you only funky as your last cut” [you’re only as good as your last popular single; the buying public is very fickle.] Then: “She got off the bus, the conversation lingered in my heard for hours.”

The whole thing is a slang poem about the uncertainty of popularity; it maintains its street cred by including the words nigga, hoe, titties and the phrase “up shit creek,” but it does not disparage Rosa Parks in any way; it doesn’t even mention her or even allude to her. And yet, Rosa Parks pursued the rap duo like a hound dog hot on the trail. After losing the Outkast lawsuit her lawyer intoned that Rosa Parks “has once again suffered the pains of exploitation.”

Undeterred, Rosa Parks continued to pursue the rappers. After losing her first lawsuit in federal court, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, reinstated part of her lawsuit in early 2003. The case was returned to a lower federal court. All along Outkast correctly argued that their tone poem was neither false advertising nor a violation of Rosa Parks’ publicity rights and that, in any case, the public had a protected right under the First Amendment to allude to, and even criticize and satirize, a long-standing public figure such as Rosa Parks. This second phase of the case, LaFace Records v. Parks, was settled out of court. The price Parks demanded to make her go away was undisclosed.

One illuminating disclosure to emerge from the Outkast lawsuit was that Rosa Parks had been subject to bouts of dementia for years, which explains why this veteran activist would appear at so many booster rallies but say almost nothing: Her handlers were using her as a living stage prop to gin up contributions while being careful not to let her say too much. It had always been more profitable to exploit the mythic Rosa Parks than to expose the real Rosa to close scrutiny.

Another example of Mrs. Parks’ jealous protection of the Rosa Parks myth was her intense reaction to the popular comedy Barbershop.

The Barbershop Affair

The most instructive aspect of the Barbershop dust up is the fact that it was not mentioned even once in all the obituaries, eulogies and trips down memory lane that followed the death of Rosa Parks even though, at its release, Barbershop engendered as much media attention as did the passing of Rosa Parks. I have the newspaper clippings to prove it.

Barbershop is a 2002 release that draws comedy and pathos from the interactions of a crowd of regulars who hang out at a South Side Chicago barbershop. There are lively exchanges and the topics open for discussion change with lightning abruptness. The shop’s owner, Calvin, referees these verbal volleys. One of the barbers, the graying Eddie, is always short of customers but filled to bursting with opinions.

When I first saw Barbershop on network television I couldn’t believe that what Eddie said had caused such a flap among African Americans; it was just a few lines. So I bought the DVD, complete with deleted scenes and outtakes and I watched it all. It was the same flick, except the DVD included comments by the cast members who fret about the controversy caused by Eddie’s comments.

Eddie’s lines are spoken by Cedric the Entertainer. Everyone, including the New York Times, calls him Cedric the Entertainer. According to my April 28, 2003 copy of Jet magazine his given name is Cedric Antonio Kyles and was formerly known as C-Boogie the Stage Rocker. Here’s all of Eddie’s patter: At one point someone mentions Jesse Jackson, which provokes Eddie to shoot back “Fuck Jesse Jackson!” This line isn’t so much a criticism of Jesse Jackson as it is a dismissal. In response, the real Jesse Jackson got all bent out of shape because someone in a movie that was popular with black folks had dismissed him. The film did number-one box office for weeks; black folks loved it.

In another heated moment, Eddie blurts out “Now Martin Luther King was a ho!” by which he means a whoremaster. This line has the added sting of being true; King was a serial philanderer. As a precondition for dropping a lawsuit against the government the King family extracted a promise from the FBI to keep the King file super top secret for seventy-five years. Without this concession the legacy of Martin Luther King would have been a laughingstock and the King family would have been denied their opportunity to parlay the King myth into millions of dollars. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, p.433-36) King had sex with a woman he had only just met at a dinner gathering, then he was unexpectedly reunited with a woman, “a member of the Kentucky legislature” in a motel room where he spent several hours with her and then he got into a quarrel with “another young woman Martin knew well” who was staying at the Lorraine Motel so that she could be intimate with King. Because King had jilted the young woman by spending the night with the woman from Kentucky, the young woman became furious. It was then that Mr. Non-violence, the follower of Gandhi, pimp-slapped her and “knocked her across the bed.” After that the two of them got into “a full-blown fight with Martin clearly winning.” And so on; he slapped the woman around pretty hard. She fled the motel as Martin King begged Abernathy to use his powers of persuasion to get her back. So Eddie the barber was clearly speaking the truth when he called Martin King a ho.

Eddie’s final offense was tampering with the myth of Rosa Parks. Eddie wants nothing to do with the usual pieties: “Rosa Parks ain’t do nothin’ but sit her black ass down!” He recalls that lots of other black folks had refused to relinquish their seats; he offers his opinion that Rosa Parks got all the publicity because she “was secretary of the NAACP.” The only thing surprising about Eddie’s oratory is that he says these things openly in a movie.

Rosa Parks was not amused. An Associated Press report from Detroit announced:
“Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks will not attend today’s NAACP Image Awards because the event’s host, Cedric the Entertainer, made jokes about her in the film ‘Barbershop’ that she considered offensive.

“In a letter dated Thursday, Elaine Steele, co-founder of the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, said the invitation was appreciated but that jokes by Cedric’s character in ‘Barbershop’ represent ‘a sensitive area to us.’

“ ‘We with many others do not understand the endorsement the NAACP gave to the hurtful jokes in the movie ‘Barbershop’ about America’s civil rights leaders,’ the letter stated.”

Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, expressed his regrets because The Rosa Parks Story had been nominated in the category of outstanding TV drama.

Another AP report from Erie, PA announced:
“The daughter of the civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. said jokes about her father in the movie ‘Barbershop’ were disrespectful. “ ‘A very disparaging, unfounded comment was made about my father,’ the Rev. Bernice A. King said…”

So, will she be calling for the release of the FBI undercover films starring her dad? Don’t hold your breath. Notice how in both reports the opinions offered by Cedric the Entertainer are referred to as “jokes.” They weren’t jokes; they were statements.

Predictably the Rev. Al Sharpton called for a boycott of the hit movie, while Jesse Jackson, who had not yet seen the film, advocated removing all scenes that might offend him from future copies of the film that he had been told might upset him. The two reverends called the dialogue insensitive; they wanted black artists and commentators to toe the party line. They didn’t want black artistic expression to be cheeky and vibrant when the focus was on them and their friends. It was okay to lampoon other folks, but not them. The same two “leaders” who had threatened to boycott Hollywood for its scant representation of blacks were now eager to boycott a successful black film. Barbershop had been written, directed and produced by black people to entertain America and it had gone straight to the top.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Cedric the Entertainer, in a telephone interview. “For America to embrace a movie like this shows we can make significant movies and people will support them. That’s a source of pride for me. And as far as the comments made by the character, we have to be able to question things and spark dialogue. The opportunity for us to question ourselves shows how much we’ve grown. We have to be allowed to grow.” Good point.

In a report filed by Marsha Kranes in the New York Post we are told that:
“A group of barbers and beauticians claims snippy remarks by the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton about the movie ‘Barbershop’ have been driving away customers. “Members of the National Association of Cosmetologists are so cut up, they’ve filed a suit in Los Angeles, accusing the two activists of intentional infliction of emotional distress, fraud and negligence…

“The group said Sharpton’s threats to boycott the film and other remarks gave members a ‘black eye’ and cost them business.

“Sharpton called the suit ‘ridiculous.’”

It’s instructive that Rosa Parks, who was married to a barber for decades, had so little appreciation for the special place of the barber shop in black neighborhoods. The barber shop may be one of the last bastions of unregulated speech in black America. Too often the long-established civil rights organizations have become undemocratic institutions ruled by authoritarian leaders, places where the voices of common black folk are not heard. Not one person in the civil rights establishment has endorsed Cedric the Entertainer’s exercise of his free-speech rights.

Black comedians are at their best as gadflies “speaking truth to power,” poking fun at pomposity and deflating hypocrisy. As Eddie says, “ain’t nobody exempt.” To quote Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of religious and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania:

“Still, we cannot always draw a simple correlation between the politics we favor and the films we judge to be helpful. Good movies can throw in our face truths we would rather overlook or avoid. I think such truth telling, and the discomfort it provokes, is behind the furor raised over ‘Barbershop.’”

Chicago’s South Side barber shops have long been de facto social clubs and debating societies renowned for their barber shop philosophers. Eddie calls these shops the black man’s country clubs, a place where black men from all social classes can spend their Saturday mornings talking about politics, religion, race and women.

As Brent Staples wrote in the New York Times:

“The notion that Martin Luther King was exempt from ridicule during the 60’s is not accurate. Black opinion about him was never entirely reverential. The King organization’s failed Chicago campaign in the 60’s drew contempt from several influential black politicians, who viewed Dr. King’s operators as arrogant outsiders. The scorn for Dr. King diminished only slightly after he was martyred in 1968. When the city named a street for him, an influential Chicago minister with whom Dr. King had once clashed changed the address of his church to an adjacent street to avoid any association with the slain civil rights leader.

“Books about the civil rights movement deal matter of factly with Dr. King’s extramarital relationships. As a Dr. King associate, Mr. Jackson knew the great man’s failings well. It is disingenuous to attack a fictional character in a movie for alluding to facts that people in the real world know to be true. Mr. Jackson, after all, has done time in some of the most brutally honest barbershops in the land. He should know from experience that nobody was exempt on Saturday morning at the shop.”

What Really Happened on the Bus?

The Reverend Ralph David Abernathy was intimately familiar with the details of Montgomery’s Jim Crow restrictions long before Martin Luther King, Jr. showed up in town. In his autobiography Abernathy explains that throughout most of the South the law demanded that blacks begin seating themselves from the rear of the bus forward and that whites begin seating themselves from the front of the bus rearward. On a predominantly black route blacks might occupy all the seats. On a mostly white route blacks might occupy only the rear row. The boundary would be determined by the proportion of the races and by who boarded the bus first.

The law in Montgomery, Alabama, was different. In Montgomery the first ten seats of every bus were reserved for whites, even when there were no white riders. This rule prohibited blacks from sitting in the three-seat benches in the front that faced one another and from the four first-row seats. So when Rosa Parks seated herself on the outside seat in the eleventh row she was not in violation of Montgomery’s Jim Crow rules.

At the third stop after she boarded, a white man boarded the bus and the driver saw that whites occupied the first ten rows of seats. It was then that the driver demanded that the black passengers in the eleventh row relinquish their seats. The passengers, two women, a man and Rosa Parks hesitated because under the local Jim Crow rules the driver had no right to demand that they move unless there were other seats available to them. The driver was demanding that four black passengers stand so that one white passenger could sit, which everyone on the bus knew was not legal. The driver was just throwing his weight around. Worse yet, the driver was the same James Fred Blake who had expelled Mrs. Parks from his bus once before.

The other three passengers in the eleventh row moved out but Mrs. Parks slid herself over next to the window and asserted her right under Jim Crow law to remain in her seat. It was only then that the driver exited the bus and called the police.

Unlike the 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who scuffled with the police, Mrs. Parks went peacefully to the station house for booking and then to the Montgomery jail. E.D. Nixon signed for her bond so she was out the same day. Legal counsel explained that Mrs. Parks could not be charged under local law because no other seat had been available to her. Mrs. Parks was charged with violating an Alabama state law that gave bus drivers authority over passengers much like that of ships’ captains at sea. She was prosecuted for disobeying the driver’s command even though he was clearly wrong in demanding that she move.

Court convened at 9 A.M. and by 9:05 the case had been adjudicated. Mrs. Parks was convicted on the spot and fined ten dollars plus four dollars in court costs. Her black attorney, Fred Gray, announced his intention to appeal the conviction.

If the Reverend Abernathy’s telling of this tale is correct, then Mrs. Parks’ defiance takes on the aspect of a grudge fight, a personal confrontation between two strong-willed people who had tangled before. Ralph Abernathy, E.D. Nixon, Martin Luther King and others skillfully exploited Mrs. Parks’ dust up with James Blake to gin up popular enthusiasm for a black-folks boycott of the Montgomery bus system. No boycott would be complete without a set of demands to keep the faithful focused. The Montgomery bus boycott is commonly misremembered as an attempt to abolish the Jim Crow bus seating rules. It was no such thing.

There were three stated aims:
1. A pledge from the city authorities and the bus company bosses that blacks would be treated with courtesy.
2. A new ordinance that would allow blacks to seat from the rear forward and whites from the front rearward, with no reserved seats and no one standing when there were empty seats.
3. Because many routes were used almost exclusively by black passengers, blacks should be allowed to apply for positions as bus drivers.

Those were the goals: The boycott sought a more genteel Jim Crow, a Jim Crow with a smiley face, not a dead Jim Crow.

The Reverend Abernathy admits that demand number three was just a throwaway:
“We knew that our first two demands were reasonable, so reasonable that the establishment might well be willing to grant them – except for one problem: They could not appear to be giving in to black pressure. It was a matter of their racial pride, their manhood. So we had to provide them with a way to give us what we wanted while seeming to be tough and unyielding. We did this by adding one unreasonable demand at the end of two reasonable ones. We figured they just might promise the courtesy and new seating plan and make a big show of rejecting our third demand. That way they would give us what we wanted and still save face by denying us something we never hoped to get in the first place.” (p. 145)

Therefore, if the Reverend Abernathy is correct, Rosa Parks should be remembered as the NAACP secretary who didn’t break any Jim Crow law; she was just a woman whose spat with a bus driver was used to provoke a bus boycott that sought to establish a revised scheme of Jim Crow seating rules. And for this Rosa Parks is lauded as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement?

The boycott ended on its 381st day because nine white judges in Washington declared the whole Jim Crow rule book to be a violation of the Eighth Amendment. The boycott had been a local event that never achieved its stated goals.

The Cult of Rosa Parks

From the very first hours after Mrs. Parks’ contretemps with bus driver James Blake, the designers of the black empowerment movement sought to burnish a popular misconception of who Mrs. Parks was and what she had done in those historic few minutes. It was the beginning of the Cult of Rosa Parks, complete with shrines and rituals and votive offerings.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan paid $492,000 for the rusting hulk of a 1948 bus that they claim is the bus. They spent another $300,000 dragging it out of an Alabama field and restoring it, right down to the advertisements for Wrigley Spearmint gum. It is now a shrine to the departed secular saint Rosa Parks.

There is a Rosa Parks museum in Atlanta which, like many other buildings across America, is reverently appointed with vintage photos of Rosa Parks’ booking and fingerprinting photos, all of which are falsely identified as being from that momentous day.

After her death, the corpse of Rosa Parks was exhibited in the Capitol Rotunda for two days and was then shipped back to Detroit where it was put on display at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Her cadaver was joined there by the restored bus-shrine from Dearborn that was trucked in for one last reunion with Rosa. The stage managers of black-power mythology were determined to give the Soviet Cult of Lenin a run for its money.

President Bush signed into law a bill demanding that a statue of Mrs. Parks be displayed in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Mr. Bush then pandered to a surprised and delighted gathering of Black Power leaders by announcing his intention to renew the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Reverend Jesse Jackson heaped praise on Mr. Bush for continuing to use federal force against states that might want to change a voting law or a district line within their borders without the approval if Big Government. The Voting Rights Act also compels states to print their voting materials in lots of foreign languages. God forbid any Democrat voter should have to struggle with a ballot written in English.

Lots of folks said lots of nonsense in praise of Rosa Parks. The Reverend Jesse wrote in Newsweek that “Mrs. Parks, who died last week at age 92, was never driven by any political agenda…,” which is a strange thing to say about a woman who steeped herself in racial politics, who married a racial activist, and who spent her nights and weekends toiling for the NAACP. She was one of their officers, one of their agents. Are we expected to believe that the NAACP has no political agenda? In every practical sense, Rosa Parks was the NAACP.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice opined that “I can honestly say that without Mrs. Parks, I probably would not be standing here today as secretary of state.” She was echoed by Oprah Winfrey who said, “I would not be standing here today, nor standing where I stand every day, had she not chosen to sit down. I know that.” It was more sentimental twaddle. The NAACP team was determined to get themselves a plaintiff they could use to challenge Jim Crow. If Rosa Parks hadn’t volunteered to give her fellow NAACP activists what they most desired, then E.D. Nixon and Company would have found another plaintiff and Mrs. Parks would have continued her work in racial politics in obscurity. By volunteering, Rosa became the stuff of legend; she garnered acclaim and adoration. And, as we have seen, she was quick to defend her popular myth with lawsuits and public-relations offensives.

A recent tribute to Rosa Parks was unintentionally fitting as thousands of pregnant, ill, infirm and obese bus riders were bullied out of the best seat on thousands of buses by transit systems that insisted on reserving that seat for Rosa Parks on the fiftieth anniversary of the day she is wrongly credited with violating some Montgomery bus rule. The Montgomery boycott merely sought different Jim Crow rules. So kicking sick and pregnant people out of the best seat at the front of the bus as a way of honoring Rosa Parks was a truly fitting commemoration of what she really did that day in 1955. This tribute reeked of Jim Crow. Even the “historic photo” that embellished the poster that the bus systems used to bully passengers away from “Rosa’s seat” was a carefully staged piece of phony propaganda.

To get the public in a sentimental mood the transit companies plastered the first passenger seat behind the driver with a poster commemorating what they called Rosa Parks Day. The poster featured what may be the most often reproduced photograph of Rosa Parks. She is shown sitting on a bus and looking out the window to her left; a white man sits behind her, looking to his right. Rosa seems lost in thought; the man’s face is expressionless. This photo has appeared everywhere: in classrooms, in text books, in museums and in every shrine to Rosa Parks. Many people have assumed that the photo was taken on the day of Mrs. Parks’ run in with James Blake; people have assumed that the white man is a stone-faced segregationist. In truth, like so much else about the myth of Rosa Parks, the photo was a totally staged event. Everyone involved was friendly to “the cause.” The manufacture of false-history propaganda photos was a common practice of the NAACP.

The photo was taken December 21, 1956, the day after the district court for Montgomery entered into effect the ruling of the United States Supreme Court that declared segregated bus systems unconstitutional. The Supreme Court decision was, by then, a month old. The white man in the photo is Nicholas C. Chriss, a reporter working for United Press International out of Atlanta. Mr. Chriss recalled that he boarded the bus in downtown Montgomery and that he and Mrs. Parks were the only riders up front.

In his biography of Rosa Parks, author Douglas Brinkley relates that Rosa Parks told him that she had left her home at the Cleveland Courts housing project specifically to have her picture taken on a bus and that it was prearranged that she would be seated up front and that a white man would be seated behind her. According to the New York Times similar staged photo sessions were arranged for Martin Luther King and other activists. Mr. Chriss agreed to sit behind Mrs. Parks; two photographers from Look magazine captured the staged event. Mr. Brinkley said that Mrs. Parks told him that members of the civil rights community wanted a dramatic image. “It was completely a 100 percent staged event,” said Mr. Brinkley. “There was nothing random about it.” In other words, it’s a propaganda photo crafted by sympathizers. American schools and textbooks and newspapers are full of this stuff.

Mrs. Parks was an NAACP activist who regularly lunched with Mr. Fred Gray, the attorney who defended her at her five-minute trial in 1955. Mr. Gray has offered that “to see something staged does not bother me at all.” The Times observed that “…staging a picture today without identifying the participants would be viewed as unethical, but it was more acceptable then.” (12/7/02 p.B5) Likewise, the famous mug shot of Rosa Parks clutching the number 7053 and the photo of her being fingerprinted are in no way related to her arrest on December 1, 1955; they were taken the following year, well after she had achieved celebrity status.

In the end, the New York Times tells us, “The triumphant case from Montgomery that declared the city’s segregated bus system illegal was not based on her [Rosa Parks’] case, but on that of four other plaintiffs, including Ms. [Claudette] Colvin and Ms. [Mary Louise] Smith.”

So why wasn’t the fifteen-year-old and pregnant-out-of-wedlock Claudette Colvin declared the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement? Perhaps she wasn’t as well suited for bogus photo ops as the willing Rosa Parks.

Rosa Parks and the activists around her demonstrated a relaxed acceptance of deceit in the pursuit of power. Mrs. Parks who would have had us believe that she was just a simple seamstress was, in fact, a veteran activist who wielded considerable influence within the NAACP. It was she who recommended the 26-year-old Martin Luther King for a position on the NAACP executive committee.

And who was Martin King? In 1955 he was a big-dream utopian who euphemistically identified himself as an “anti-capitalist.” He was, in truth, a starry-eyed Marxist who only four years earlier had written this personal manifesto:
“…I am conviced [sic] that capitalism has seen its best days in American [sic], and not only in America, but in the entire world. It is a well known fact that no social institute [sic] can survive when it has outlived its usefullness [sic]. This, capitalism has done. It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.

“We need only to look at the underlying developements [sic] of our society. There is a definite revolt by, what Marx calls, ‘the preletarian’, [sic] against the bourgeoise [sic]…. What will eventually happen is this, labor will become so power [sic] (this was certainly evidenced in the recent election) that she will be able to place a president in the White House. This will inevitably bring about a nationalization of industry. That will be the end of capitalism. . . there is a definite move away from capitalism, whether we conceive of it as conscious or unconscious Capitalism finds herself like a losing football team in the last quarter trying types of tactics to survive.”

Martin King wrote this drivel at a time when communist totalitarians were condemning billions of people to lives of poverty, mediocrity and fear. The FBI had good reason to be concerned that someone who was so foolish as to embrace the false promise of Marxism might become the charismatic leader of millions of poorly educated and discontented black folks. Martin King was forever prattling about an imagined link between the needs of American blacks and the anti-colonial struggles of people in the Third World. King surrounded himself with dedicated Communists. King’s advisor Hunter Pitts (Jack) O’Dell was a veteran Communist Party organizer in New Orleans. Martin King’s advisor Stanley Levison was a financier for the Communist Party. King’s most trusted advisor and strategist Bayard Rustin began his activism with the Young Communist League.

All of these people understood the power of propaganda, invented history, staged events, deception and impersonation. Like their Soviet role models, these closeted communists sought to create power bases around cults of personality. Hence, their impulse to present themselves to us as martyrs and secular saints. The aura of sainthood that hangs over an aging generation of civil-rights “leaders” is suffocating those who should be an emerging generation of black advocates. The old guys have been so preoccupied with maintaining their personal cults of personality that they have made no plans to hand off responsibility to younger advocates.

To quote journalist Farai Chideya: “At this point, there’s work to do on defining a movement as opposed to following a movement. If this generation wants to mount a challenge to the earlier generation’s leadership they have to raise their own money and start their own organizations.”

Let’s hope this next generation, if they ever arrive, will be plain-spoken, will have no secret agendas and will park their halos at the curb.

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Thomas Clough
Copyright 2005
December 11, 2005