Many recall Rosa Parks as the woman who refused to give her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, which resulted in her arrest and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. While this heroic act had an impact on the Civil Rights Movement, Parks’ activism was much more extensive than that one rebellious act, and she was certainly not the only person fiercely fighting for freedom. Why then do some teach civil rights history without vital parts of the story?
Professor Jeanne Theoharis explores the idea that civil rights curriculum tends to be overly simplified and does not often tell the whole story in her two books, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History and The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. She spoke about these ideas this week with US History teacher Andy Bigelow’s Civil Rights Movement class, which will be reading Theoharis’ book and have already read extensively about lesser-known civil rights heroes.
Theoharis explained that the history we get is not always the history that we need. Oftentimes, civil rights history focuses on specific areas in the South when, in reality, a lot of work for the movement was also taking place in the North. Soon after the bus incident, Rosa Parks herself moved from Mississippi to Detroit, Michigan, which is where she spent a majority of her time fighting for rights.
“She knew the movement wasn’t over,” said Theoharis. “She’s held up to celebrate progress, but actually Rosa Parks was saying that there’s a lot more that needs to be done. We’re not done.”
In addition to the lesser-known aspects of Parks’ life, Theoharis noted there are plenty of people who also contributed to the movement but do not get the same recognition. For example, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her bus seat nine months before Rosa Parks. Mary Louise Smith did the same a few months later.
The key message from the discussion reflected on the idea that sometimes people place history in a specific light to serve political agendas, which often does not tell the entire story. For the Civil Rights Movement, the story at times implies that, once the Civil Rights Act was passed, the movement was over. However, that is not the case, as there are still heavy challenges today to personal liberties, including voting.
Students’ questions connected the activism from then to today, with one student asking how we as a society can honor Black history while still acknowledging the work that needs to be done.
Theoharis said, “Part of what we’re doing is memorializing things in the past, and by doing so, we don’t need enforcement in the present. These issues are not so in the distant past. Part of what history gives us is the ability to see ourselves standing on other people’s shoulders and taking it further.”
Parker inspires students to take it further every day by promoting confidence and encouraging students to use their voices to make our world a better place.