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.”
So how did it work for Rosa Parks?
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.
I absolutely love when you mix in real issues that are on your mind with the fun posts about fashion! Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Thanks Belle, this is great.
Thanks, Belle! I’m so glad you took time to share this story. It was also surprising for me in college to learn the truth about this story, but it’s so important!
Parker - Boardroombelles says:
Thanks Belle! I first learned the full picture behind the over-simplified “old woman, too tired to leave her seat” story in a US History course in college. It was amazing to me that Rosa Parks’ story wasn’t told more factually becuase it’s so courageous! The other fact folks often miss is that the same thing was happening elsewhere in the country. Her’s was not an isolated incident that happened out of nowhere. She was brave and ready for the spotlight when it shined in her direction.
Maybe it was just the particular school I went to, but we were definitely presented with the story that she was sick and tired of being treated so unfairly not that she was physically tired. I’m pretty sure we read an entire book about her and had to write a book report around the 4th grade. It’s kind of surprising to me whenever I hear how many things schools gloss over or eliminate to shield kids. Thanks for putting this info out there for folks who aren’t aware!
Thank you Belle! I “learned the truth” in high school because I decided to read a book about her life. She was involved in activism long before she refused to give up her seat.
Yeah, she was a civil rights leader prior to the bus boycott – she had been secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter. I think the “tired old lady” narrative really, kind of waters down her legacy and takes away her agency.
I feel kind of the same way of how we remember MLK – for example, the quotes on the memorial in DC are poignant but very tame. Very much general stuff like “the arc of the moral universe…” Nothing to be said of his passion for racial equality and economic justice.
Great post! There’s also a new book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis, dispelling the same myths of Parks as just a tired seamstress.
This post brought to mind a book I read a few years ago: “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power” (this book, too, sheds light on the real Rosa Parks, who was an activist for justice long before she refused to give up her seat). This is one of the most powerful books I have ever read, and it compellingly details the HUGE impact that women had on the civil rights movement. Highly recommended.
Thank you for this post. You Rick!
It’s so strange that she somehow became known as this old woman when she was only 42! Great post, this is the first I’ve heard about the real Rosa Parks story
There’s a fascinating parallel between Rosa Parks and the woman who sparked the Solidarity movement in Poland which was highly instrumental in the fall of Communism/Socialism. In both cases it was strong women making conscious decisions to disobey and inspire others. In both cases they were painted as tired, poor old women who were protected by men.
My favorite Rosa Parks quote is this:
“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Lovely. Thank you!
Ella McCall Haygan says:
I’m so glad that the community is finally getting to know the real story about the life of Mrs. Rosa Louise Parks, I spent 15 years with Mrs. Parks, and she introduced me to the young sisters of the civil rights movement,(Mrs. King, Mamie Till(emmitt Till’s mother)and I had the pleasure of meeting so many greet women in the movement. We operate a chapter of Mrs.Parks Youth program in Washington, DC. it’s called, Pathways to Freedom,her youth program, from the Rosa & Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, this is the only organization that she co-founded with Ms Elaine Eason Steele, the lady who was her best friend,partner and caretaker for over 47 years, she took care of her until she die. The youth program is an
educational, historical, and reseach program. Each summer the youth would travel with Mrs. Parks tracing the unground railroad to the modern day civil rights movement. Traveling from state to state, from the south to the north. I was the advance coordinator for Mrs. Parks & Ms. Steele, when they traveled to the Washington,DC Chapter. I’m writing my book about my years with the two ladies, they were fun years and she enjoyed the last days of life,she still faced some trying times, but she was happy because she was working with children/youth. Educationing and teaching children survival skills. Working with young people was her first love. This is why she left all her belongings to her Institute to continue educating the children. Mrs. Parks always kept God first in her life, even that day in 1955, whe she protested, by refusing to give up her seat on that bus. I lecture about Mrs. Parks, I have a photo exhibit and a Rosa Parks Freedom Quilt that is displayed. It has been displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. We are hoping it will be displayed at the New Afican American Museum when it is completed on the DC Mall in 2015.