Rosa Parks an NAACP Pawn?

Richard Evans argues that Rosa Parks, who died last night at the age of 92, was “a pawn” because she was an NAACP employee and her famous “bus adventure was staged to garner public sympathy.”

He cites the story of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old black girl who had been arrested nine months earlier for precisely the same thing but was not used as a symbol by the NAACP.

E.D. Nixon, then a leader of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, had been waiting for a test case to challenge bus segregation and vowed to help Colvin after her father posted bail. But then came the second-guessing: Colvin’s father mowed lawns; her mother was a maid. Churchgoing people, but they lived in King Hill, the poorest section of Montgomery. The police, who took her to the city hall and then jail, also accused the teenager of spewing curse words, which Colvin denied, saying that in fact the obscenities were leveled at her (“The intimidation, the ridicule,†she often says now).

Some blacks believed she was too young, and too dark-skinned to be an effective symbol of injustice for the rest of the nation. Then, as local civil rights leaders continued to debate whether her case was worth contesting, that summer came the news that Colvin was pregnant — by a married man.

E.D. Nixon would later explain in an oral history, “I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with.†Rosa Parks, for a decade the NAACP secretary who took special interest in Colvin’s case, was “morally clean, reliable, nobody had nothing on her.â€

While I didn’t know about Colvin (or Baton Rouge’s Martha White, who did the same thing years before) the fact that others stood up against Jim Crow before Parks does not diminish her courage or effectiveness as a symbol.

That the NAACP was careful in choosing its targets of opportunity is not a sign of craveness but of brilliant strategy (or, if you prefer, “strategery”). There is a reason that Jackie Robinson, a clean cut, well spoken WWII veteran with a college degree from UCLA was promoted as the “first” black man to play for the Major Leagues. Similarly, it was not an accident that Topeka, Kansas–not thought of as a hotbed of racial segregation and not in the South–was chosen as the target of the first major school desegregation lawsuit.

The strategy behind Dr. King’s movement, modeled after Gandhi’s movement in India, was to shame the oppressors by calling attention to mistreatment of decent citizens who expressed their case with quiet dignity. Given the strong emotions behind the pro-segregation camp, only a model citizen would do as a pioneer as anyone who was not beyond reproach would have set the movement back.

Certainly, Colvin would not have survived that scrutiny. Like Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks was hard to villify and easy to sympathize with. Both had demonstrated that they were ready for the hot spotlight that was going to shine on them for years to come. Both paid a heavy price for it in terms of their emotional health but both survived as legendary historic figures because of their character.

Update (1517): Stephen Green agrees: “Some wars are worth fighting by any means, and ending Jim Crow was one of them.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Like I said in the post, I don’t want to take away from the good results of their efforts but the truth should be known. The myth behind parks is that she was acting of her own accord in a spontaneous manner. This was clearly not the case. Folks should know that.

  2. From fifty years ago when a nonviolent act on a bus generated so much change and outrage to Islamic maniacs killing women and children in bus bombings generating praise and poetry in London-based Arabic papers.

    Has humanity really progressed?

  3. James Joyner says:

    Richard: Actually, this version reflects more favorably on Parks than the “woman with tired feet who snapped and accidentally set off a chain of events” myth.

    Laurence: We’ve improved in a lot of ways but, to be sure, there are areas where we were better off 50 years ago.

  4. tyler says:

    Laurence, we’ve progressed in various arenas, not so much in others. Imagine where we’d be had we not had a Rosa Parks or the whole civil rights movement all together…

    I imagine the world would be much worse than it is in its current state.

  5. dw says:

    The problem is, it’s not as simple or simplistic as Evans makes it out to be (in a somewhat racist manner). In being simplistic, he’s misrepresenting reality.

    For one thing, it wasn’t like there were only two blacks in the history of the South who were arrested for not yielding their seat to whites. This had been happening for years in Montgomery and in other cities with similar laws. Parks herself had been arrested in 1943 for doing what she did on 12/1/1955. Supposedly, some blacks may have been killed for doing this, though I can’t find any obvious evidence of it. But it wasn’t just two people — an upright seamstress and a pregnant teenager — who refused to move.

    Secondly, there’s the question of Parks’ NAACP involvement. The legends suggest that she was some wheel in the NAACP, but in reality she’d only joined that year, and she was merely a volunteer doing go-fer work and helping run some workshops for adolescents. There is no evidence the NAACP put her on that bus or told her that she had to resist.

    Thirdly, the “opposite” myth — that she was tired and her feet hurt — is also completely false. In later interviews she said she didn’t move because she wasn’t giving up her seat. In effect, she was calling bulls**t on bus segregation. But it sounds so much nicer that this middle-aged woman didn’t move because her feet hurt, so that’s what (incorrectly) made it into the textbooks.

    One other interesting fact is now cautious and conservative the Montgomery NAACP played their cards. What were their demands? That blacks be treated with respect, that black bus drivers be hired, and that the MIDDLE of the bus be desegregated. Not the WHOLE bus, the MIDDLE of the bus. They only got full-scale bus desegregation because of an unrelated suit (which the main NAACP was part of). And as part of their conservatism, they threw the new black preacher to the front as their spokesman, the son of a noted black preacher in Atlanta, because if the boycott failed they could just throw him and his family on the next train back to Daddy and no one would have to risk their own hides. And that preacher… well, you know who he is.

    So, anyway, it’s not as simplistic as Evans makes it out to be. With the Emmett Till having grabbed headlines that summer, the media was primed for race relations. The NAACP had been looking for a test case for a number of years. Rosa Parks refused to move. And the movement — and the white counter-movement that eventually gave birth to the Southern Strategy and the modern Southern-led GOP — was off.

    She’s not Gandhi, but her one small action was enough to finally start a popular movement that had been begging for an ignition point for several decades. Her moment on 12/1/1955 changed the direction of American history, and we’re living with the consequences of what happened that evening.

  6. Jon says:

    How is he being a racist? He questions an historical event and he’s a racist?

    How can the Republicans be part of a white counter-movement when 80% of Republicans in the House voted for the Civil Rights Act? For all of the objections to that Act in function and constitutionality, it’s a little hard to believe that the Southern Strategy was a racist movement 3 years after that kind of turn-out.

    I don’t like big government, but I really can’t justify federalism as a covert racist movement. How can welfare reform be racially motivated? When most blacks aren’t poor and most poor aren’t black, that’s pretty weak sauce. I hope our government is more resourceful than that, even if they’re doing something as horrible as you suggest.

  7. Don’t sweat it Jon. It’s typical lib-left bunk when one opens a response by calling another racist. I’ve gotten alot of it today. The noise comming from these folks is the sound of their bubbles being expanded. It’s painful for them but they’ll get through it.

    I’m sorry dw but you’re over analysing things. It really is as simple as I’ve laid it out. Rosa Parks was used to further the agenda (I’m not saying the agenda was wrong) in a staged event.

    You also need to do more reading up on Rosa’s involvement with the NAACP dw. More specifically, research her husbands involvement and their assistance with certian events prior to the bogus bus bash.

  8. myrtle beach says:

    I just wish she were counted more as a hero because she had a job and didn’t collect welfare.

    Why can’t black people have heros like Ben Carson, Mae Jemison, Robert Lawrence, etc…?

  9. Rosa Parks T-Shirts says:

    Deleted spam.