Rosa Parks an NAACP Pawn?
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: ColvinÃ¢€™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 (Ã¢€œThe intimidation, the ridicule,Ã¢€ 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 Ã¢€” by a married man.
E.D. Nixon would later explain in an oral history, Ã¢€œI had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with.Ã¢€ Rosa Parks, for a decade the NAACP secretary who took special interest in ColvinÃ¢€™s case, was Ã¢€œmorally clean, reliable, nobody had nothing on her.Ã¢€
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.”