Since Rosa Parks Wasn’t Rosa Parks, Who Was? Irene Bad-Ass Morgan, That’s Who

Over on Pharyngula, a discussion has been started about the propriety of using “accomplice” as a better word to describe the people that we have sometimes described as “allies” when discussing people that are not targeted by a specific form of oppression but nonetheless choose to work against it.

I started to write a comment over there about why I believe accomplice is appropriate, but it ended up becoming a treatise*1 about a woman named Irene Morgan*2. I decided that the thread shouldn’t be cluttered by a comment quite as long as I was writing, but that Morgan deserved better than cutting that treatise short. So I’ve moved it to Pervert Justice as a post for your reading pleasure.

To set the stage, PZ’s post quotes a recent article on Dr. King and the misperceptions of his life and work held by white folk in the US. He’s often seen as a great peacemaker, to be contrasted with rabble rousers who use activism to shake things up and get attention. But in fact he was both. Contrary to the thoughts of conservative luminary Jack Kingston, slavery is violence, as is apartheid, and the US had been engaged in a continuous war against its own Black citizens since the country’s founding. Peace required not maintenance of the simmering, unstable status quo, but a complete reformation of the American project. Dr. King himself said so quite clearly (though he was building on and even paraphrasing others as he did so):

True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.

The article PZ excerpts is written by April Reign for and his excerpt includes the first paragraph of this quote, which later became the subject of discussion by Owlmirror, mythogen, and Caine:

“Accomplice,” not “ally,” should be the goal. An ally is one who acknowledges there is a problem. An accomplice is one who acknowledges there is a problem and then commits to stand in the gap for those less fortunate than themselves, without hope or expectation of reward. An ally is passive; an accomplice is active.

King spoke of this in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here:
“Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity.”

Why is this important? Well, for PZ in the context of a post on Bari Weiss’ defense of Israel’s Amritsar-scale shootings of Gaza Palestinians on Monday, it provided an opportunity to articulate the level of immorality amongst those who act as public apologists for Israeli state violence.

When you’re more concerned about exposing the superficiality of Princess Ivanka and Slumlord Jared then you are about people being shot in the street, you’re being an accomplice, all right — to the wrong side.

But Owlmirror raises the point of branding.

From Comment #5:

“accomplice” has certain unfortunate negative connotations.

mythogen calls this a feature, not a bug. Owlmirror responds in #13:

What you really want to do is emphasize that the current system is illegitimate, not the opposition to it. E.g.: The police, courts, and prison owners are all accomplices ….
Consider another example: The civil rights movement. Calling it that emphasizes that what the movement is trying to achieve is something they should already have. Calling it the “overthrow segregation movement” wouldn’t have worked ….

Owlmirror’s point isn’t illegitimate. Let’s discuss the Freedom Rides for a moment, first by conceding that activists themselves played a role in branding them Freedom Rides and that if they’d wanted to call them, “Let’s piss off the fuckwit racists trying to impose unjust segregation on our asses through violence,” the actions would have played somewhat less well in mainstream media (though they were by no means treated with universal respect in those media).

The Freedom Rides were a form of civil disobedience. So what exactly is civil disobedience? And does it have anything to do with the Gaza protests? Aren’t Palestinians violent? And wasn’t the point of using civil disobedience in the Civil Rights Movement the power of non-violence?

The answers to those questions are yes and no. That is, the answer to the first question is “Yes and no,” and so is the answer to the second.

If you read about the Gaza protests, most of what was being done was non-violent. The only description of property destruction or violence against persons that I can find was a protest trend of which I disapprove: lighting the tail of a kite on fire, setting the kite on the wind, then when it gets high enough to float over the Gaza fence, cutting the kite free to potentially start a fire in the dry vegetation on Israeli. I disapprove. I don’t think I would engage in that tactic – though obviously I can’t be sure, my life experience being different – if I were a Palestinian living in Gaza.

Now the Freedom Rides were conceived as an initially non-violent action. But Black activists were well aware that violence might happen and that in at least some cases it would be hard to prove that Freedom Riders were innocently defending themselves. Though reports of these situations are inherently difficult to use to settle the question, being a white, racist asshat is not on its own justification for violence and it’s incredibly unlikely that only whites ever threw the first punch in the numerous fights that broke out in the context of the Freedom Rides. So though we can’t have conclusive proof of Freedom Riders acting violently outside of the context of self-defense, we have good reason to believe that there was some violent periphery to actions even as non-violent as riding a bus. The organizers knew that perfect behavior from the activists on busses would be impossible to achieve, but went ahead with the protests anyway.

Does that mean that the organizers were trying to create violence against white people? Does it matter that some Black firebrands openly called for violent resistance? After all, we’ve had our John Browns. In a context where some Palestinians engage in violent, even genocidal rhetoric, does that mean it’s impossible to organize a legitimate protest? Does that mean that no Gazan Palestinian can ever have non-violent intent when organizing a protest, given the general awareness that Gaza protests can and do attract peripheral Palestinian violence? Were the Freedom Rides, after all, inherently violent?

I think the answer to those last three questions is no in each case. I also think that when others disagree, that disagreement stems at least in part from a misunderstanding of civil disobedience itself. The point of civil disobedience is, and I know this is going to sound weird, disobeying the civil authorities. Wow. Mind blown, I know. Still, let’s think about this thing: refusal to obey the civil authorities always means breaking the law. I have a different idea of the best way to break the laws laid down by Israel’s government to control the Gaza population than flying flaming kites, but if I were there, I absolutely would like to believe that I would be breaking the law as well.

Civil disobedience works because when injustice is sufficiently widespread and sufficiently persistent to create oppression, the law is always complicit (as Owlmirror said).  In choosing the time and manner that you break the law so as to be reasonably certain of civil authorities’ responses, you can highlight the exact nature of legal complicity and the injustice of the laws that supposedly exist to create justice.

The “civil” here also refers to another meaning of the word: non-violent. Undertaken with due respect. Sometimes even kind. The injustice of the oppressors will always be best highlighted when the backdrop for their repression and violence is as clear a contrast as can be contrived. So, yes, there’s an interest in being perceived as non-violent, as kind, even as generous if it helps the protest reach its goal. This is not the same thing as a requirement that every action of civil disobedience be entirely free of violence.

And make no mistake: it is not civil disobedience if no laws are being broken. The Freedom Rides were designed to highlight segregation on interstate transportation regulated under federal law and, per specific decisions by SCOTUS, unable to legally segregate after 1946. The irony of this is that although the Freedom Riders were breaking state laws and corporate policies, the state laws themselves were illegal. That the 1960 Freedom Riders were as non-violent as they were came in part from a confidence that the Riders could have that though local law enforcement might assault, arrest or jail them, there were at least some important authorities that had been on their side since the Supreme Court decided Morgan v. Virginia 14 years earlier. That 1946 case itself came about through the civil disobedience of a national treasure, Irene Morgan:

Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Irene Morgan. She’s not as well known as Rosa Parks, whose name is synonymous with the start of the civil rights movement, but their stories are remarkably similar.

Both African-American women refused to follow the segregation laws that required them to give their bus seats to white people. Both were arrested. And, eventually, both were supported by the Supreme Court, which heard their cases and struck down those laws.

Morgan lived and worked in Baltimore, but also spent some portion of her time living/staying with her mother in Virginia. After a miscarriage in June of 1944 or shortly before, Morgan was feeling poorly and went to see her mother. It’s unclear if this was initially more physical or more emotional. On her way back from this visit, she was feeling ill – ill enough to have scheduled an appointment with a doctor. (Accounts differ as to whether she was going back to her job and also seeing her doctor, or if she was going back specifically for the doctor’s appointment, but there is no disagreement that she was feeling sufficiently ill to make the appointment.) The bus trip she took was on an interstate coach from Virginia to Maryland, passing through D.C. and as such was regulated by both state and federal law. Federal law, of course you all know, takes precedence in the case of a conflict via the US Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, but in 1944 Virginia’s law segregating interstate bus transport was directly supported by the last SCOTUS case on point, Plessy v. Ferguson. That case should be familiar to all residents of the US for finding that a Louisiana law requiring “separate” rail transport was constitutional provided facilities were “equal”.

She sat down in a row of the bus next to another woman who was legally colored, as the law required that no row be occupied by both white and black passengers. There was no specifically colored section, however, just a policy that Black people sit in back and a law that no Black person could occupy the same row as someone legally white. Thus when more whites boarded, the bus driver ordered her and her neighbor farther back so that there would be no racial mixing within rows, and no alternating of white and Black occupied rows. Unlike Rosa Parks who is mythologized as making a sudden decision based on being sick on tired one day but actually had contributed at least a small part to long term strategizing to highlight the Montgomery bus system’s injustices, Morgan actually did make a decision not to move in that moment. She didn’t plan it in advance, not even in a general sense. She actually was sick. Her sickness probably did make her tired. Irene Morgan decided there on that bus not to move.

It was at this moment that Morgan became the woman that white people imagine Rosa Parks to be. Morgan didn’t have extensive contacts with a network of activists. She didn’t have a media strategy. She wasn’t secretary of her local NAACP, or even a member that I can determine. She had no one on call in case she got arrested. She certainly didn’t have the number of a prominent Black pastor memorized to both bail her out and make sure that she made bail in a prominent, visible way. She didn’t even live in a city that had been informally planning a bus boycott for nigh on a year while looking for a sympathetic face for a boycott’s public campaign. What she had was a sense of justice:

“If something happens to you which is wrong, the best thing to do is have it corrected in the best way you can,”

Morgan had no reason to believe she had the support of anyone in power. In fact, she was certain that the law was against her. The bus driver ordered her to move, the state law said she had to move, and the federal government had clearly decreed that removing her was a proper exercise of governmental power. So when a sheriff’s deputy came to remove her and cite her for violating the law, she responded in the only way proper:

She tore up the arrest warrant, kicked the sheriff and fought with the deputy who tried to drag her off the bus.

In fact, though I don’t have direct access to the book at the moment, Wikipedia quotes Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice attributing this description of the incident to Morgan herself:

He touched me, that’s when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. I was going to bite him, but he looked dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he would use his nightstick. I said, ‘We’ll whip each other’

Of course, the deputy did physically restrain her, arrest her, and haul her away. She even plead guilty to resisting arrest and paid the $100 fine. She plead not guilty, however, to violating Virginia’s law requiring segregated transport. Virginia’s courts assigned her guilt, though, giving her grounds for an appeal which made it all the way to SCOTUS in less than 2 years, indeed SCOTUS handed down its 7-1 ruling in Morgan v Virginia only 23 months after the date of her disobedience, resistance, and arrest. For those who don’t understand how the US courts work today, that is almost unbelievably quick.

What happened in the meantime, however? Morgan suffered significantly. I imagine $100 was a lot of money for a woman factory worker in 1944. She was also portrayed unsympathetically in the media. For the Montgomery bus boycotts, activists had considered launching the campaign almost a year before Rosa Parks’ arrest, but the 15 year old girl arrested for violating the same ordinance that Rosa Parks would break 9 months later was pregnant. We should remember Claudette Colvin for bravery equal to that of Parks’, but sexism and shame cause us to forget her as her community decided she was an unworthy face for an important struggle for justice.

But was Morgan sympathetic? The sheriff whom she kicked didn’t make state law. He had a job to do, and accounts do not report an overt attempt to initiate the violence with Morgan. We can safely say now that Morgan’s cause was just, but that’s the point: it’s safe for us to say that. Had any of us helped Morgan’s cause, the cause of a woman who used violence against men just doing their jobs, those of us rendering her aid on that day would for damn sure have been accomplices, not allies. We can criticize Morgan’s violence, and frankly I do, but her kick did not render her cause unjust.

Not every activist is Rosa Parks. Not every cause is represented by even one Rosa Parks. But the measure of the justice of a cause is not the moral perfection of its advocates. These days, I think part of the purpose of white celebration of Dr. King and Mohandas Gandhi and Rosa Parks in combination with the whitewashing of their openly illegal actions is to further the idea that just causes have morally perfect leaders and that just actions are inherently inoffensive ones.

If that were true, then refraining from participation in breaking the law as an accomplice in civil disobedience or other struggles against unjust law or power would be a morally praiseworthy act, an act of discernment that if a cause is just, it should be able to (and willing to!) convince others through purely legal means. But the actions of civil disobedience are both offensive and offenses. April Reign’s plea for accomplices and not allies will fall on many decidedly deaf ears. Owlmirror is right that there is no majority in favor of getting themselves arrested and that a call for accomplices will receive fewer positive responses than a call for allies.

But that is not Reign’s point.

Reign’s point is that the innocent Rosa Parks who didn’t mean to offend any person or commit any offense is a myth. Even Irene Morgan colors outside the lines of the white depiction of Parks when she kicks a sheriff in the groin. But Irene Morgan, sitting in the colored section of a segregated Greyhound bus and asked to move her sick body for the convenience of white racism and corporate greed*3, comes closer to a reification of our white mythologies than Parks herself. And yet when she needed help, helping would make a person an accomplice not an ally.

We imagine perfectly just causes with morally perfect leaders so that we can assert that a truly good goal can be reached through kind words and innocent actions alone. We imagine our great moral crusades as demanding no sacrifices. But becoming an accomplice guarantees true risk.

Reign isn’t speaking to the majority. She’s speaking to the minority of people that already take some actions toward creating a just world, making minor efforts and token sacrifices. She is pointing to the great costs incurred by the jailed, the injured, the killed. Her call brings to mind the Irene Morgans of this world and the costs they pay to benefit us all. Owlmirror thus speaks well of tactics used for a different purpose, and in doing so misses Reign’s point. Caine and mythogen understand better. Reign doesn’t see a need to convince a majority of people to think of racism as bad. We already have a nation who believes the branding, who passively accept that racism is wrong. What we need now is something different: not another campaign of kind words. We have reached a new status quo, with regressivism taking back gains in areas as quickly as other areas advance toward justice. In this moment we require a new ferocity, a new dedication. And was ferocity ever intended to be the universal state of a populace? Thoreau once said*4, and I’m sure Reign would agree,

I hear many condemn these men because they were so few. When were the good and the brave ever a majority?

There is no need for a passively sympathetic majority. There is a need to expand the passionate minority. Reign’s words were

An accomplice is one who acknowledges there is a problem and then commits to stand in the gap for those less fortunate than themselves, without hope or expectation of reward.

But Thoreau beat her to this as well, not merely anticipating the utility of the negative connotations of “accomplice”, but going much farther and literally depending on the negative connotations of lawbreaking to make his argument:

Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse.

…If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth- certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable, ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her- the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person.

But if the rhetoric of a 19th century philosopher and the context of a government that still enforced slavery are too far removed to resonate with some contemporary minds, let me seek another way to state this:

Irene Morgan was a bad-ass. Who among you will be as bad ass in 2018 as Morgan was in 1944?*5


*1: By your friendly, neighborhood Crip Dyke? Who would have thunk it?

*2: Also known as Irene Amos Morgan and after marriage as Irene Morgan Kirkaldy.

*3: After all, Greyhound could have set up sections made up of specific rows to prevent exactly the kind of movement demanded limited its sales to white customers to the number of white-reserved seats. Or, y’know, they could have refused to obey the Virginia law because fuck that law.

*4: In the context of defending John Brown’s violent anti-slavery raid. I actually have a really hard time with Brown’s raid, but I respect the idea that if we accept that it is morally permissible to use deadly force to save a friend from a modern kidnapper, it must be equally permissible to use such force against a kidnapper in the pre-Emancipation United States. My problem is that the morality of such use of force is not unlimited merely because a kidnapping has occurred, and I’m not at all knowledgeable of the overall context sufficient to feel any confidence in my ethical pronouncements about whether this particular use of force exceeded such bounds.

*5: Sign up anywhere: you’re needed as badly in Minneapolis, Missoula, and Montgomery as you are in Gaza, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem.


  1. polishsalami says

    I don’t really have a problem with political violence. Sometimes the bad guys just have to go.

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