Date: Sat, 26 Jun 1999 08:16:20 -0500 (CDT)
From: Michael Eisenscher <email@example.com>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Rosa Parks and E. D. Nixon
I recently covered the White House ceremony conferring the Congressional Gold Medal upon Rosa Parks for MSNBC and was party to an interesting display of revisionist history. Don’t get me wrong. Rosa Parks doesn’t deserve to be dissed, by me or anyone else. But was I had to confront the distinct mythology that this gentle, dignified, courageous lady, single-handedly kicked off the Civil Rights movement. There was John Lewis being interviewed saying that when she sat down, oppressed blacks could stand up with dignity; Martin Luther King, III repeated this refrain and it could be heard in the speeches of several of the dignitaries at the event.
The mythology is that it was the character of Rosa Parks that was the spark which lit the fuse of the Montgomery Bus Boycott out of which came the entire Civil Rights movement. Although something can be said for this interpretation in general, it cover up a more complex truth. First of all, Rosa Parks was not really the picture perfect lady on the Bus who was incensed when told to get up and give her seat to a white man. In her role with the NAACP, she had known a series of courageous women such as Ella Baker and others, and by the time of her arrest, she had made a habit of defying the laws of white supremacy.
The mythology also by-passes the role of E. D. Nixon in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. If there had been no Nixon, the nation would probably not have known either Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Nixon who selected Rosa Parks for attention when she landed in jail. He knew, as an organizer for the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a long time member of the NAACP, that her contacts with the NAACP meant that people would perceive that the organization had been violated by her jailing and that it would be easier to achieve a response. Rosa Parks had been a member of the NAACP since 1943 and former Secretary so, when he found out that she was in Jail he called a meeting.
It was E. D. Nixon who called Martin Luther King, Jr. to ask whether or not the meeting might be held at his church. Nixon’s reason for this was that King had not been in town long enough to have been intimidated into submission by the White power structure in Montgomery. Later, I heard Nixon say on one occasion that he told King that is good that he agreed to have the meeting at his church because that is where Nixon told everybody it would be anyway. So, King became the icon of that struggle, but Nixon was its rough edge.
The Boycott began in December of 1955 and It was just over a year later that it would be resolved, but there had already been a bus boycott in Baton Rouge in 1953. So, I believe with Professor Aldon Morris that what lit the torch of the Civil Rights movement in a much stronger way was the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school integration. It created strong expectations, promising an end to segregation in a broad sphere of American life, with the simultaneous fact that the law was on the side of blacks, if only they would push for it to work. As such, actions began in many places.
After the Montgomery Boycott, Rosa Parks fell on hard times in Montgomery because of her role in the Boycott and it was hard for her to reclaim her employment as a seamstress in the downtown department stores. So, she became a soldier in the movement and found herself at the Highlander Folk School with Septima Clark and other stalwarts, working in the Citizenship schools that were set up all over the South to stimulate black voting and a general awareness of the rights of blacks as citizens. In any case, she generally faded from the scene when, out of the blue, she was offered a job in the early 1980s by Congressman John Conyers of Detroit and worked in his office for some time. I noticed that he was not on the program at the Medal ceremony.
As the movement left Montgomery and went on to other sites where the cameras were focused, E. D. Nixon also was lost to view, as he stayed in the City and worked among its people. The creation of the Southern Christian leadership Conference offered a role in the struggle for preachers, which seemed to prohibit a labor leader.
What does the canonization of Rosa Parks mean to us today? It appears that Rosa Parks has become a convenient icon of the movement’s past, pacified every much as Martin Luther King, Jr. has been to the point of being almost irrelevant as a symbol of modern black struggle. Through her Foundation, she has attempted to pass on some education about the Civil Rights movement, but even there, the message is pitched to the generally consumable point that everyone can potentially generate change if they are of good character and carry themselves in a dignified and courageous manner.
This is why it was possible for members of the House and Senate to cast an easy vote to support giving the Medal; 434 out of 435 in the House and 82 votes in the Senate. This process of making icons is not something that Rosa Parks did or would even approve of. It is what happens when we are willing to forget the realities of struggle and the depths of our oppression in order to create a modern comfort zone.
Meanwhile, I honor Rosa Parks for the dignity and courage that led to the Gold Medal, but I will also remember E. D. Nixon who made this honor possible.