Earlier this week, civil rights pioneer and all-around badass chick, Rosa Parks, was honored with a statue in Statuary Hall. Like most American school children, I learned about Rosa Parks in elementary school during a brief discussion about the civil rights movement. And the story I was told, is probably the same story you were told; it went a little something like this:
When Rosa Parks rode on a bus, she had to sit all the way in the back. Her city had a law. It said black people could not sit in the front of a bus.One day Rosa was tired. She sat in the front. The bus driver told her to move. She did not. He called the police. Rosa was put in jail.Some citizens tried to help. One of them was Martin Luther King, Jr. The citizens decided to stop riding buses until the law was changed.Their plan worked. The law was changed. Soon, many other unfair laws were changed. Rosa Parks led the way!
For 17 years, I believed that this was the story of Rosa Parks. Just a kindly, old lady who was tired from a long day of work as a seamstress and refused to give up her seat simply because she was black. Then, during the C-SPAN broadcast of her funeral, I had difficulty reconciling the tired seamstress story with the trailblazing fighter for freedom that the speakers were describing. So I bought a book, and learned that the whole story was a bunch of malarkey.
As the website sociastudies.com points out, “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.”
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in. I knew someone had to take the first step and I made up my mind not to move. Our mistreatment was just not right, and I was tired of it.
Her decision not to move and to subsequently become the public face of the bus boycott was risky. This was the Deep South where the KKK and supporters of segregation had no qualms about harming the people who challenged their view of the world (see Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman, see Medgar Evers, see MLK, and hundreds of people whose names are not as well known).
Rosa Parks spent the rest of her life trying to dispel the myth of the tired seamstress that so many of us learned in school and took as gospel. So I figured that today I would honor Rosa Parks’ legacy of bravery and peaceful protest by linking to the real story of how she knowingly lit the match, that started a boycott, that propelled the civil rights movement forward.