People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” Rosa Parks wrote, “but that isn’t true … the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Over a decade before her 1955 arrest, Parks endured the first of many ejections from buses for refusing to give up her seat. In the 1940s, she was secretary of the Alabama State Conference of NAACP Branches and started the NAACP Youth Council. The former position involved strategizing with civil rights icons like A. Philip Randolph and Ella Baker. The latter meant overseeing young black activists as they tried to check out books from white-only libraries and sit in white-only seats on segregated buses.
This history of boldly and strategically executed activism predated Rosa Parks’ 1955 arrest, and it continued long afterward. But you’d be hard-pressed to find it in the rightfully reverential media accounts of her life following her death last week.
Instead, we were treated to retellings of the stubborn myth in which an apolitical seamstress ambles into history simply by virtue of exhaustion, and then promptly ambles back out of it again. Two generations of journalists, historians and politicians have popularized this myth, in which Parks’ act of resistance was noble because it was spontaneous and she was credible because she was average. Some civil rights leaders also saw tactical benefit in presenting Parks as a simple woman who was stirred to a single historic act of bravery rather than as an activist who had not only committed acts of civil disobedience, but had trained others to do so.
But whatever utility it may once have had, this myth now functions to reinforce problematic but popular beliefs about political protest: that the only truly genuine political mobilizations are spontaneous ones, and that when injustice is grave enough, such spontaneous action happens effortlessly and automatically. Such beliefs undergird the way too many Americans justify holding civil rights activists in the highest regard while holding others who take to the streets in cynical contempt.
Willful historical blindness underlies the all-too frequent arguments that civil rights activists were distinguished from activists before or since by not needing organizers to push people to take risks, or long meetings to plan their actions, or media strategies and spokespeople to make their case as effectively as possible. The 60s civil rights movement had all of these components — and none made its claims any less urgent or its vision any less honest.
The night Parks was arrested, the local Women’s Political Council met to debate the merits and plan the logistics of a city-wide bus boycott. The WPC’s Jo Ann Robinson composed a leaflet to build support for the action. Local NAACP President E.D. Nixon used a slide rule to start mapping walking routes around the city and holding meetings with clergy to press them for support. Nixon and others founded the Montgomery Improvement Association to oversee the boycott and, seeking a minister as a public spokesman, set about recruiting Martin Luther King.
Building a movement is hard work. Most of that work doesn’t make great television. But stories in which such work was never necessary make terrible history. Accepting an account in which an anonymous seamstress acted in a single moment of inspiration, the nobility of her choice based on her apolitical profile, primes us to degrade the sacrifices made by Americans expressing long-held convictions through carefully planned actions with organizational support. Accepting an account in which the sheer injustice of segregation spontaneously and effortlessly produced an opposition movement primes us to distrust the claims of organizations that we see hire staff, or have factional fights, or raise money.
Pundits justify continuing to sneer at modern-day activists by maintaining the myths that “orchestrating protest,” having “paid agitators,” or utilizing a “media campaign” are tactics that distinguish them from people like Rosa Parks. Honoring Parks’ legacy should mean celebrating her lifetime of activism, not a myth that erases most of her work. It should mean honestly engaging with her history, and that of the movement she helped to ignite. That movement was effective and admirable not because it was spontaneous, or anarchic, or moderate — it was none of these things — but because by empowering thousands through strategically sound actions, it brought crucial moral claims to a national audience and forced powerful institutions to reckon with their complicity in bigotry.
Skepticism about how particular organizations wield power is healthy for progressivism. Ella Baker struggled mightily with the illiberal sexism of the Southern Christian Leadership Council even as she worked as its executive director to take on the un-American racism of Jim Crow. But an intractable distrust of movements that use organizational resources or strategic imagery to achieve just goals only serves to justify inaction and indifference. These obstacles — and the arguments employed by ostensible liberals to defend them — are ones Rosa Parks knew well. She took them on for decades before and after that famous day in December of 1955.
Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.