Most historical accounts of Rosa Parks focus 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. In this interview we originally aired in 2005, Bob talks with Duke historian Tim Tyson about the construction of an American hero.
BOB GARFIELD: But who’s to say which misperceptions are still relevant and which aren’t? At the concert on the Mall a day before Obama’s inauguration the name of Rosa Parks was invoked by Samuel L. Jackson for her courage. The courage of a weary woman who had had enough. [CLIP]: SAMUEL L. JACKSON: This, this is what Rosa Parks said, “I did not get on the bus to get arrested. I got on the bus to go home. I had no idea that history was being made. I was just tired of giving in. Somehow I felt I was right to stand up to that bus-driver. I knew I could have been lynched or beaten when the police came. I chose not to move. I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: But the real Rosa Parks was more than just the simple seamstress of legend. To correct the record we’ll play a brief excerpt of an interview we did on the occasion of Park’s death with Tim Tyson, a senior research scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and a visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School. He told us that Parks was active in the civil rights movement and that the movement was looking, waiting, for someone like Rosa to make a stand. TIM TYSON: 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 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: 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. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Tim, thank you very much. TIM TYSON: Thanks much. BOB GARFIELD: Tim Tyson is a senior researcher at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and a visiting professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]