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Myth and Fact in the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Progressive educator and author Herbert Kohl, in a brilliant essay that is part of his book Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories, points out that America's school children are very often introduced to the history of the civil rights movement through the story of Rosa Parks. But the story told to children is not always accurate--and its inaccuracies, Kohl warns, could endanger the future of the nation.

Here we sketch out background for a lesson idea to help teachers at all grade levels introduce both versions of the story of Rosa Parks: the standard, mythic, inaccurate one that Kohl calls dangerous and the more accurate (and complicated) version that he recommends. The only materials needed are multiple versions of the story, which you may already have in your classroom, or which you may assign students to obtain after independent research in the library. Several Web sites with versions of the story will be suggested here, along with several specific resources available from SOCIAL STUDIES SCHOOL SERVICE.


"Rosa was tired..."

That phrase appears in almost every retelling of the story of December 1, 1955. Rosa was tired, the story goes; she had no idea that she was about to do something important.

"On that famous day when she was arrested, it would have been much easier for Rosa to give up her seat. Three other black women who were sitting beside her did.1 She could have avoided being arrested, fingerprinted, and sent to jail. But Rosa was tired. Her back was sore from pressing pants all day at work, and she was tired of racism."
1Actually, two black women and one black man.
--From Great African Americans in Civil Rights, p.38.

We like this story because it is so simple and so human. We see that Rosa is just like us, an ordinary person with a regular job, a person who is tired at the end of a day's work. And then, tired as she is, she resists when someone tries to force an injustice on her. Rosa says no.

"I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day.... No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
--From Great African Americans in Civil Rights, p.38
So Rosa was told to give her seat to a white man, refused to do so, and was arrested. Then Martin Luther King found out what Rosa had done, and he made a speech that inspired other black people to stand by Rosa. The next day, all across Montgomery, black people refused to ride the bus. After a year, the law was changed. It was as simple as that.

The lesson of the story, when it is told this simply, is this: If you just do the right thing, you can change the world. This lesson is dangerous, according to Herbert Kohl, because the world doesn't work like that. It didn't work like that for Rosa Parks--not when you know the real details--and it's not likely to work like that for any child who tries to fight injustice in his or her own life.

For children to understand how the Montgomery bus boycott really worked, they need to know that succeeding in the fight against injustice did not just take individual courage: it also took organization.


Rosa Parks was not the first woman in Montgomery to refuse to get out of her seat so a white man could be comfortable.

"Rosa was aware...that in the last twelve months alone three African-American females had been arrested for the same offense. One incident made the newspapers in March; it even happened on the same bus line. Of four black passengers asked to surrender their seats in no-man's land, two refused--an elderly woman and fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin. 'I done paid my dime,' Colvin had said. 'I ain't got no reason to move.' The elderly woman got off the bus before police arrived. Colvin refused to move, so police dragged her, fighting and crying, to the squad car, where she was rudely handcuffed..."

"Colvin was charged with violating the city segregation law, disorderly conduct, and assault. With the NAACP defending her, she was convicted but fined only for assault, the most absurd of the three trumped-up charges. It was a shrewd ruling; it sent a tough message to blacks while avoiding an NAACP appeal of a clearly unconstitutional law. Afterward, E.D. Nixon, former Pullman porter and [now] president of the local NAACP chapter, met with the indignant young Colvin to determine if she might make a strong plaintiff in a test case. But she had recently become pregnant, which spelled trouble; Nixon knew that Montgomery's church-going blacks would not rally behind an immature, unwed, teenaged mother who was also prone to using profanity."
--From Black Profiles in Courage by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alan Steinberg, pp.233-234.

In this more complicated version of the story, Rosa Parks is no mere seamstress tuckered out from pressing pants. She has also been for many years a volunteer for the local chapter of the NAACP. She is, in fact, E.D. Nixon's secretary. She knows all about Claudette Colvin and the other women who have been arrested for refusing to give up their seats. She knows when she gets on that bus that E.D. Nixon is looking for a test case, a case he can take all the way to the Supreme Court. What Rosa doesn't know--not until bus driver James Blake, a man Rosa has despised ever since he threw her off the bus in a similar incident ten years earlier, yells, "All right, you niggers, I want those seats"--is that she is not going to be a secretary in the case, but the defendant.

If the real Rosa is more politically aware than the mythical one, and if her action happens in context with a pre-existing situation rather than coming like a bolt out of the blue, does that make Rosa less of a hero? Of course not. If we help students understand the realities of the world in which Rosa lived, they can then see how real the dangers were that she faced. The real Rosa remembered how the murderers of Emmet Till were set free by an all-white jury just two months earlier, and how an NAACP activist in Mississippi was murdered just two weeks before she refused to give up her seat. The real Rosa knew her husband may have been right when she told him what she had done and he responded, "The white folks will kill you." The real Rosa was not surprised when she got fired from her job, and her husband too was fired from his job, all because she said no.

But the most important difference between the myth and the reality of the Rosa Parks story lies in what happened after Rosa said no--the bus boycott. In the myth, it seems to happen as if by magic: Rosa gets off the bus, and all black America gets off the bus with her. The fact that her courage instantly inspires everyone seems at once a miracle and also the most natural thing in the world.

It didn't necessarily work that way. Vernon Johns, the fiery black activist pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, who was succeeded in his ministry by Martin Luther King, Jr., once tried to start a bus boycott:

"Johns, then in his sixties and frail, boarded a Montgomery bus and accidentally dropped the dime fare near the driver's feet. 'Uncle,' the driver threatened, get down and pick up that dime and put it in the box.' Johns snapped back, 'I've surrendered the dime. If you want it, all you have to do is bend down and pick it up.' The driver was surprised. He ordered Johns to pick up the dime or get thrown off the bus. Johns calmly turned to the busful of black passengers and suggested they all get off the bus with him, in protest. But no one moved; they were too afraid. Later, when telling [Ralph] Abernathy this story, Johns concluded disgustedly, 'Even God can't free people who act like that.'"
--From Black Profiles in Courage by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alan Steinberg, p.238.

If Vernon Johns, pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and one of the best known and most respected black men in Montgomery, could not inspire a bus boycott, how could a mere seamstress? The answer is organization. What Johns did was spur-of-the-moment. What Rosa Parks did was something black activists had carefully planned. They didn't know who would come along to be the spark they needed, or when it would occur, but they knew what they would do when it did occur.

Rosa Parks was arrested on a Thursday evening. Immediately, E.D. Nixon-- her friend, coworker, and fellow activist at the NAACP--was notified, and so was Fred Gray, the young African-American lawyer who would handle the case. Gray was the same lawyer who had previously agreed to handle Claudette Colvin's case if Nixon had chosen to carry that case forward. Nixon and Gray agreed that in Rosa Parks they had a solid citizen around whom the community could rally, and her long activism in the NAACP convinced them that she knew the importance of her case and possessed the courage and commitment the situation would require.

Late that night, Gray phoned his friend Jo Ann Robinson, president of the 300-member Women's Political Council. Robinson started phoning other activists and they agreed that Rosa Parks was just the right sort of person--outwardly ordinary and mild-mannered, inwardly steadfast--around whom a bus boycott could be organized to protest the law. After making her phone calls, Robinson stayed up till dawn with a mimeograph machine, creating 52,500 fliers that would be distributed over the weekend to churches, schools, bars, stores, and private homes.

The next morning, E.D. Nixon phoned Martin Luther King and other black ministers in Montgomery. He warned them that he wanted to take a segregation case to the Supreme Court, and asked them to organize the support of Montgomery's black church congregations. King, a young man new to Montgomery and to his congregation, was reluctant to make waves so early in his tenure, but Nixon and the other pastors convinced him that, as an outsider, he had the advantage of not having made any local enemies yet. King agreed to head the effort. He and the other ministers immediately began to use their congregations to mobilize public support for Rosa Parks. She would not be ignored. She would not be alone. Anything that happened to her would happen in the spotlight of public attention. Every black person in Montgomery would know her story.

On Monday morning, when Rosa Parks walked into the courthouse, 500 supporters stood outside to cheer her. Monday evening, when Drs. King and Abernathy arrived at the special boycott meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, they found 4000 people jammed into the church and crowded onto the lawns and surrounding alleys and streets. And, thanks to the fliers, all day that Monday the buses ran empty of blacks.

That was only the beginning. Organizers held two mass rallies every week to raise spirits and money, and arranged 350 carpools to provide 20,000 rides per day. What Rosa Parks did was a spontaneous act of courage, but the only reason her individual act made a difference was because activists organized countless other acts of support. That, according to Herbert Kohl, is the real story of Rosa Parks.

Available from Social Studies School Service:

Relevant Web sites:

  • Rosa Parks
  • The Rosa Parks Story: How One Person Made a Difference
  • Rosa Parks Interview--1995