This week an icon of the civil rights movement would have been 101 years old. Rosa Parks was born on February 4, 1913 in Alabama. I wish to celebrate her life as she lived it, and not in the spirit of the mythology that her life evolved into.
People know all about how Parks was supposedly the tired, genteely impoverished seamstress who was just so tired, she couldn’t and then wouldn’t move to the back of the bus, launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights movement. This lovely story of civil disobedience is repeated across many, many children’s books and celebrated for Black History Month every year. It’s a lovely little narrative that keeps Parks at a remove and puts her on a pedestal. Telling the story in a children’s book keeps us removed from her as well.
While Parks performed her act of obedience, there is far, far more to her that should be celebrated and acknowledged. She had been a long time activist in her home state and the refusal to move to the back of the bus was the culmination of a life time of resistance and made her a target, and thus she became part of the Great Migration and had to flee Alabama for Detroit—and for her life.
We could tell children of how she stood up to a white bully when she was ten years old, threatening to hit him with a brick that she had picked up. Her grandmother told her that her behavior was unseemly and that she would be lynched before she was twenty with such behavior. Another time, when a white boy on skates tried to push her off of the sidewalk, she pushed him back. The boy’s mother saw her and threatened to have her arrested, but she didn’t care.
Rarely do we hear about that Rosa.
Her investigator case work with the NAACP, was important, but we can’t tell children about that. As the case worker in the Recy Taylor rape case, she documented Recy’s gang rape and persisted in trying to get Recy justice for her gang rape by six men in 1944, well before Montgomery. Maybe people neglect Parks’s efforts in this case because the cases were dismissed and the attackers never saw punishment for their vicious crime, even though they confess to authorities. The results of the investigation shouldn’t diminish the fact that Parks took on truly activist work, at a time when African American women were supposed to keep quiet about such occurrences.
She was the secretary or member of every civil rights organization where she lived, and had to endure the loss of employment because of her activism. She also went to the world famous Highlander Folk school in the summer of 1955 to study various approaches to civil rights and labor activism. No, Parks was more than a tired middle-aged lady (and she was 42 when Montgomery happened, so let’s stop calling her an old lady). She was a strong minded, purposeful activist. Danielle McGuire in At the Dark at the End of the Street and Jeanne Theoharis in The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks tell these stories. There is much, much more to be uncovered about Rosa Parks. However, we must first stop spreading the mythology. The story doesn’t help to celebrate the complexity of Parks. She deserves to be seen that way.