As the nation mourned the death of Rosa Parks this week, most obituaries focused on the story we all know: how the humble seamstress changed history by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. But while that account is accurate, it's only part of her story. Bob talks to University of Wisconsin historian Tim Tyson about the construction of an American hero.
BOB GARFIELD: Rosa Parks died Monday, a humble woman whose act of defiance helped galvanize the civil rights movement. Her story is the stuff of legend, a mixture of reality and myth. Here to help us unpack that legend and bring us closer to the whole truth of Rosa Parks is Tim Tyson, professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Tim, welcome to the show.
TIM TYSON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Who was Rosa Parks when she refused to give up that bus seat in the winter of 1955?
TIM TYSON: She was a very unifying sort of person in the black community because she was a working class woman who made clothing very well, and so she had friends all up and down the social scale. E.D. Nixon was the most important black political figure in Montgomery, and she was his best friend and secretary. He was the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the NAACP, and she was the secretary for both of those organizations. She was well aware that they had been anticipating a bus boycott. She had been an activist for 13 or 14 years. She was in the habit of defying segregation on the buses.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a famous picture of her being fingerprinted in the Montgomery jailhouse wearing this tweed suit and her hair pulled back and these rimless eyeglasses, looking very much the librarian. Was she – [TWO AT ONCE]]
TIM TYSON: Yes. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - cast because she in fact looked so prim?
TIM TYSON: No. She was just a politically aware and politically active woman. They were, in fact, looking for such a thing. Within a year, there had been a couple of cases of black women arrested on the buses who they almost had a boycott around, but who weren't just right in one way or another. And so they were sort of waiting for this case. They did not say, however, you know, Mrs. Parks, would you mind going and getting arrested on the bus today? We're ready to do the bus boycott. When she got arrested, the word went forth and people in the community knew what would happen.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, as recently as today – I'm speaking to you on Wednesday – the Washington Post, in its appreciation of Rosa Parks, referred very much to her as a seamstress and very little to her as an activist. It did nothing to squelch the myth that she was just one woman who, on a certain day, had had enough. Why do you suppose that that myth endures?
TIM TYSON: I think for some reason we are unwilling to honor people who are politically active. We want to honor people who just have had enough and sort of spontaneously won't take it any more. But somehow if they get categorized as active citizens, which would be a positive way of saying it, as troublemakers – which is the way we often [CHUCKLES] think about such persons – then somehow it becomes self-serving, part of a movement which we're less comfortable with. And I think that's just an American popular cultural narrative that we pick up very quickly. And indeed, it started very quickly after the bus boycott. And they talked about her tired feet. That gets mentioned a lot more often than it should. She may have been a little bit tired, but that had nothing to do with the decision that she made.
BOB GARFIELD: In that same Washington Post obituary I read today there was, it seemed, a palpable sense of disappointment that the myth is, in fact, a myth. Why are we so reluctant to let it go?
TIM TYSON: There's a sense in which Mrs. Parks is very important to our post-civil rights racial narrative, because we really want a kind of sugar-coated civil rights movement that's about purity and interracial non-violence. And so we don't really want to meet the real Rosa Parks. We don't, for example, want to know that in the late 1960s, Rosa Parks became a black nationalist and a great admirer of Malcolm X. I met Rosa Parks at the funeral of Robert F. Williams, who had fought the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina with a machine gun in the late 1950s and then fled to Cuba, and had been a kind of international revolutionary icon of black power. Ms. Parks delivered the eulogy at his funeral. She talks in her autobiography and says that she never believed in non-violence and that she was incapable of that herself, and that she kept guns in her home to protect her family. But we want a little old lady with tired feet. You may have noticed we don't have a lot of pacifist white heroes. We prefer our black people meek and mild, I think.
BOB GARFIELD: Rosa Parks is, at this moment in history, I think, pretty much a household name. She's taught in all the schools. But there was a time, somewhat after the boycott, that she had kind of faded into obscurity. How did that happen and how did she emerge from obscurity?
TIM TYSON: The cult of personality that grew up around Martin Luther King very quickly after the bus boycott, the media focused on him, and people like E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks were really pushed out of the limelight. In fact, I've read a letter from E.D. Nixon in 1958 where he was really explaining quite bitterly that he had gotten Ms. Parks out of jail, he had called a boycott, and that neither he nor Ms. Parks had been invited to the third anniversary celebration of the Montgomery bus boycott's victory. But as the boycott itself became a kind of American landmark, then they began looking back at the civil rights movement. And Montgomery looms large, and you trace it to the root and you've got this appealing story.
BOB GARFIELD: Lest we suggest that it was not an act of heroism, let's just recall that she was hounded out of Montgomery and had to flee under death threat for points north. Over the years, Rosa Parks has occasionally expressed irritation that the myth endures. But she also, in other ways, cultivated her iconic image. Was she ambivalent about her place in history?
TIM TYSON: I think she was a seasoned political activist who knew that it was useful for her to seem apolitical. But the myth was only useful, really, in [LAUGHS] 1955 and 1956. But as the years go by, of course, historians didn't do much better. And we expect historians to dig a little deeper than just the politics of image. Of course, I think there's also a serious gender element to this [LAUGHS] in that when male politicians are quite forceful, you know, we like that. I think we prefer our women to be demure and modest and unassuming – and unaware.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Tim, thank you very much.
TIM TYSON: Thanks much.
BOB GARFIELD: Timothy Tyson is the author of Blood Done Sign My Name, and is a professor of Afro-American History at the University of Wisconsin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog or a slanderer, and when the Internet got totally taken over by "the man."
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