Blogs > Liberty and Power > Rosa Parks and the Perversion of Majoritarianism

Oct 26, 2005 7:09 pm

Rosa Parks and the Perversion of Majoritarianism

The best article I have read on Rosa Parks since her death a couple of days ago is a piece by Thomas Sowell explaining how the political system made segregation in public transport in the early 20th century possible. According to Sowell, after blacks were disenfranchised it took only a small number of whites to push the political system to pass the Jim Crow seating laws. Since blacks could no longer vote and the majority of white voters were rather indifferent to the issue altogether, there was an incentive for politicians to pass and maintain those laws.

This, exactly, is the fundamental problem with any democratic system when it is not limited by law. And I mean law, not legislation, of course--i.e. moral principles safeguarding liberty that no legislation can interfere with. Nobel prize winner Friedrich von Hayek wrote three powerful volumes precisely on how democracy has been perverted by the prevailing political system and has come to mean a sort of tyranny of the majority in which the majority is not even a numerical reality but simply any group able to influence the legislative machinery through the democratic process.

The emergence of segregation laws affecting public transportation in the South in the early 20th century is a poignant example of what has been happening to democracy in developed nations for a very long time. Contemporary examples include many discriminatory laws in different areas-commerce, labor, the environment-that are not really upheld by a majority but by special interests able to use the democratic system to their advantage and to provide politicians with sufficient votes to sustain the mirage of majoritism.

One last point about Rosa Parks. Hayek also argued persuasively that the cultural evolution of humanity from savagery to civilization was possible because at various stages certain individuals broke rules that held back their community from adapting to the world around them in more efficient and beneficial ways. These leaders, who were not necessarily conscious of being leaders, at the same time respected every other rule and therefore appeared reasonable to the rest of the community, ultimately, through imitation, dragging it to their"side", thus forcing a relaxation of various prohibitions. That, precisely, is what Rosa Parks did with her moving refusal to give up her seat.

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David T. Beito - 10/30/2005

King and the Montgomery Improvement Association which organized and led the boycott did not demand integration of the buses initially, much to the dismay of the national NAACP.

They called for the so-called "Baton Rouge" system of separate but equal (blacks seated from the rear and whites from the front). and nobody would be asked to move

The city of Montgomery, however, was unwilling to accept their proposal. They key sticking point was "no man's land" in the middle where blacks and whites might have to sit together. Segregationist whites could not abide by that possibility even though Baton Rouge (and I believe Mobile) provided a precedent.

To address your question more specifically, I suspect that the boycotters, including Parks, in their heart of hearts wanted integration but decided that it was not realistic in the short term, and thus supported separate but equal instead. Most blacks did not care about segregation per se but rather about second class treatment.

Of course, later in the process, the boycotters became more radical and the Supreme Court stuck down all forms of bus segregation in late 1956,....but that was not true initially.

If you want a full account of this, the details are described in Martin Luther King's book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.

Mark Brady - 10/30/2005

David, I'm puzzled by the story you tell. From what you say, one might infer that Rosa Parks supported segregated bus transport--"a separate but equal system under which black riders would be seated from the back and whites from the front and nobody had to give up their seats." That doesn't sound correct. Please elucidate.

Kenneth R Gregg - 10/27/2005

Individual acts such as the simple one that Rosa Parks took is a telling example about the results that occur when people are ready to make significant changes about their social arena.

No matter what the laws said, it was time for the laws to recognize a new reality, whether legislators, politicians of any other stripe, or even the majority of people felt otherwise. There were enough blacks and whites around who realized it was just plain wrong for Rosa Parks to get up. It was just plain wrong for african-americans to not openly admit the truth of this, and it was just plain wrong for everyone else to hide this truth.

No one knew that this would be the "tipping point." But it was certainly time. We are the richer for it.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

David T. Beito - 10/27/2005

Well said. One might add that disfranchised blacks were at a disadvantage in the courts because they could not serve on juries.

Interestingly, an urban legend has taken hold among some libertarians that Rosa Parks' decision was a pre-planned "set up" the NAACP. While it is true that Parks was an official in the local NAACP, we have every reason to believe that her actions were entirely spontaneous.

A key problem with the "set up" theory is that the integrationist NAACP initially refused to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They didn't like the fact that the boycotters proposed a separate but equal system under which black riders would be seated from the back and whites from the front and nobody had to give up their seats.

For this reason, they boycotters had to set up their own independent Montgomery Improvement Association rather than conduct their campaign under the leadership of the local NAACP.