On December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. took to the pulpit at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and thanked the Lord for Rosa Parks. “And, since it had to happen, I’m happy it happened to a person like Mrs. Parks,” he said. “For nobody can doubt the boundless outreach of her integrity. Nobody can doubt the height of her character, nobody can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment and devotion to the teachings of Jesus.”
The truth is, it didn’t have to happen to Mrs. Parks. Nine months earlier it had already happened to Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old activist who was ejected from the city’s buses in almost identical circumstances. But the local civil rights leadership felt Colvin was too dark, too poor and, once she fell pregnant, too compromised to spearhead the kind of struggle they had in mind. And so they dropped her and waited for a better test case.
“Mrs. Parks was a married woman,” said Ed Nixon, a civil rights leader in Montgomery. “She was morally clean…. If there was ever a person we would’ve been able to [use to] break the situation that existed on the Montgomery city line, Rosa L. Parks was the woman to use.”
There are few things as corrosive as the notion of the worthy victim. With the indecency of the crime established, the emphasis shifts to the relative decency of those who suffered as a result of it. A rape is qualified by the behavior and attire of the woman; the human rights abuses at Guantánamo are deemed worse if the prisoner is innocent.
Consciously or not, activists frequently make strategic calculations regarding which victim best exemplifies the full extent of the injustice. In the short term, the tactic might occasionally be justified. “They picked the right person,” Colvin once told me. “They needed someone who could bring together all the classes. They wouldn’t have followed me.” But the sacrifice of the unworthy nearly always compromises the ultimate principle–that women have the right to wear what they want free of harassment; that even terrorists deserve a fair trial; that working-class, single-parent, dark-skinned black women are entitled to civil rights.
Which brings us to the Don Imus affair and his racist, misogynistic branding of the Rutgers women’s basketball team as a group of “nappy-headed ho’s.” For all the column inches spent on it, Imus’s demise never really demanded much great philosophical reflection. He thrived on his right to offend; others exercised their right to be offended. For the first time in a long time the balance of forces was against him. He prided himself on being inflammatory; finally he got burned.
But in the stampede to remove him from the airwaves, some crucial principles were crushed underfoot. For the consensus soon emerged that the problem with his comments was not that they were said at all but that they were said about the wrong people.