Ms. Collins is off today. Mr. Blow, in “Rosa Parks, Revisited,” says a new book seeks to restore a heroine’s wholeness, even at the risk of stirring unease. In “The Ed Koch Show” Mr. Nocera says a new documentary about Hizzoner says a lot about what makes a great mayor. Here’s Mr. Blow:
Most of what you think you know about Rosa Parks may well be wrong.
On the verge of the 100th anniversary of her birth this Monday comes a fascinating new book, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” by Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College professor. It argues that the romanticized, children’s-book story of a meek seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history in a moment of uncalculated resistance is pure mythology.
As Theoharis points out, “Rosa’s family sought to teach her a controlled anger, a survival strategy that balanced compliance with militancy.”
Parks was mostly raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather, a follower of Marcus Garvey, often sat vigil on the porch with a rifle in case the Klan came. She sometimes sat with him because, as the book says she put it, “I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer.”
When she was a child, a young white man taunted her. In turn, she threatened him with a brick. Her grandmother reprimanded her as “too high-strung,” warning that Rosa would be lynched before the age of 20. Rosa responded, “I would be lynched rather than be run over by them.”
One of the most troubling and possibly most controversial scenes in the book occurs when Rosa is a young woman working as a domestic. A white man whom she calls “Mr. Charlie” tries to sexually assault her. Determined to protect herself, she taunts him as she evades him, haranguing him about the “white man’s inhuman treatment of the Negro.”
“How I hated all white people, especially him,” she continued. “I said I would never stoop so low as to have anything to do with him.”
Parks added that “if he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body, he was welcome but he would have to kill me first.”
The author points out that although the story is recorded in Parks’s own handwriting, it isn’t clear whether it’s completely true, half true or just allegory.
Rosa married Raymond Parks, a civil rights activist who sometimes carried a gun and who impressed her because, she said, “he refused to be intimidated by white people.”
She spent nearly two decades before the bus incident struggling, organizing and agitating for civil rights, mostly as the secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., branch of the N.A.A.C.P. But it wasn’t until Parks was in her 40s and attended an integrated workshop that she found “for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society.” This didn’t mean that she was eager for integration, though. She was later quoted as saying that what people sought “was not a matter of close physical contact with whites, but equal opportunity.”
And Parks was by no means the first person to perform an act of civil disobedience on a bus. She was very much aware of many of the people whose similar actions had preceded her own, even raising money for some of their defense funds. She also encouraged others to commit these acts of civil disobedience.
Parks explained that “I had felt for a long time, that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so.”
That day came on Dec. 1, 1955, when a bus driver asked her to get up so that a white man could sit. She refused. This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was a political calculation informed by a life of activism. As Parks put it, “an opportunity was being given to me to do what I had asked of others.”
And the idea that she stayed seated because of physical fatigue is pure fiction.
“I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting,” the book quotes her as saying. “It was just popular, I suppose because they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around.”
The book also lays out Parks’s leading role in the bus boycotts and her decades of activism after the civil rights movement.
When Parks died in 2005, Theoharis says, “The Rosa Parks who surfaced in the deluge of public commentary was, in nearly every account, characterized as ‘quiet.’ ‘Humble,’ ‘dignified,’ and ‘soft-spoken,’ she was ‘not angry’ and ‘never raised her voice.’ ”
Parks, like many other Americans who over the years have angrily agitated for change in this country, had been sanitized and sugarcoated for easy consumption.
As Theoharis writes: “Held up as a national heroine but stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice, the Parks who emerged was a self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption.”
Fortunately, this book seeks to restore Parks’s wholeness, even at the risk of stirring unease.
The Rosa Parks in this book is as much Malcolm X as she is Martin Luther King Jr.
Happy Black History Month.
Now here’s Mr. Nocera:
“I never doubted that I would be a good mayor,” said Ed Koch, with a self-satisfied smile. “I never did.”
It was Tuesday night, and the documentary “Koch,” written and directed by my old friend Neil Barsky, was having its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art. In his late 80s, the former New York mayor looked his age in the film, but he was still very sharp and quite funny — and as needy as he’d always been for public attention and approval. As Ed Koch matter-of-factly uttered those words, early in the movie, the audience, full of former staff aides, political loyalists and New York movers-and-shakers, chuckled knowingly. Throughout his political life, Koch’s ego had never been far from the surface. It says here that his egotism is part of what made him a great mayor.
Koch had planned to be in the audience Tuesday night. He had cooperated fully with Barsky and had given a few interviews in the run-up to the premiere. He was clearly looking forward to basking in the spotlight again. But earlier that day he had been admitted to the hospital. By Friday, he was dead. Is it tasteless to say he couldn’t have planned a better promotional campaign? Probably. But Koch himself would have laughed at the joke. Which was another thing about him: He was probably the last mayor of New York to have a sense of humor.
Like Koch, Barsky was born in the Bronx. A former Wall Street Journal reporter and hedge fund manager, he was in college when Koch was first elected mayor. About 10 years ago, he told me, he had driven around the South Bronx, an area he hadn’t ventured into in decades. He was stunned to see, as he put it, that “I couldn’t find any of the old burned-out buildings” that he recalled from the 1970s. “They had all been replaced with real housing.”
Affordable housing was a big part of Koch’s legacy, Barsky realized; indeed, under Koch, the city spent $5 billion on housing, more than the next 50 American cities combined. The memory of that tour of the South Bronx stuck with him. When Barsky closed his hedge fund to become a filmmaker, Koch was an obvious subject.
Which is not to say the film is a big wet kiss. Yes, it gives plenty of credit where it is due: Koch’s sound financial management brought the city back from the brink of bankruptcy. He helped New York regain its confidence. He took on the transit union. He began the process that led to the renewal of Times Square and other areas of the city. He reduced the rampant crime that had created such a climate of fear in New York.
But Barsky is also cleareyed about his foibles. Koch’s lack of empathy. His contentious and at times ugly relationship with the black community. His slowness to react to the AIDS crisis. Barsky tackles the rumors that Koch was a closeted gay man, asking him point-blank about his sexuality. “None of your business,” replied Koch, in somewhat more pungent language. (Many gay activists are convinced that Koch didn’t do more during the AIDS crisis because he was uncomfortable with his own sexuality. But the totality of Koch’s record — he was a leader in pushing for gay rights — suggests otherwise, at least to me.)
What was most striking about “Koch,” however, was the extent to which, for Hizzoner, it was always about, well, Ed Koch. He needlessly picks fights, calling people “schmucks” and “idiots” when they disagreed with him. He takes actions designed to win him praise in the media. One of his former aides recalls him saying, after reading the paper, that nothing of note had happened that day. What he meant was that he wasn’t mentioned. “How’m I doin’?” wasn’t just a trademark phrase; it was an expression of a deep psychological need. On the other hand, if that is what drove him to spend $5 billion on new housing, who can complain?
A few days after the “Koch” premiere, I went to see “Fiorello!,” a 1959 musical about another great New York mayor, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, which is having a short run at City Center. LaGuardia was also an egotist, who loved “the people” more than he did people, who reformed city government yet who also had a profound need to be at the center of every orbit he entered.
Indeed, the same can largely be said of our current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose view of himself as a Great Man doing a Great Job is so ingrained that, according to The New York Times, he has tried to recruit someone he thinks has sufficient stature to succeed him.
New York’s three greatest mayors were also three of its great egotists. It’s no accident.