Our Absolute Guarantee
"ROSA WAS TIRED...":
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
THE SIMPLE STORY
"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
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
THE COMPLICATED STORY
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
--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
"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:
The Rosa Parks Story: How One Person Made a Difference
Rosa Parks Interview--1995