Sixty years ago today, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat on a bus to make room for a white passenger. Montgomery, Alabama had a law that basically gave white people premium seating on the buses. There was a “Whites Only” section at the front of the bus in which black passengers were prohibited. The “Whites Only” section generally comprised the 1st four rows of seats but the bus drivers were able to expand that sections as the (white) ridership required. Parks sat in the “colored” section after paying her fare but, when the bus driver expanded the “Whites Only” section to include the row that Parks was in, she refused to move to another seat further to the rear of the bus.
I learned about Rosa Parks in elementary school in the mid 1960s in Towson, Maryland. At the time, racism was not considered to be a positive trait; at the same time, racism was evident everywhere. In my working class, all white, neighborhood, if a black man or boy walked down the street, a few fathers would likely confront him to ask what he was doing there and perhaps to escort him out of the neighborhood. There were virtually no black people in my school. The first time I had the experience of meeting a lot of black people was playing Little League baseball. Oddly, I don’t remember any incidents of coaches or players complaining about the presence of black boys on the teams. So, while racism was formally decried, it informed a lot of what was daily life.
When I learned about Rosa Parks, the story had a sort of romantic feel about it. Parks was returning home after a day working as a seamstress. She was tired, we were told, and just was too pooped to get up and move. She wasn’t trying to cause any trouble, she was just tired. Since even 1960s white kids could understand the implicit unfairness of having seats on public transportation reserved for white riders, Parks was imbued with a bit of heroism in the telling of the tale. Everyone could see the unfairness and everyone could understand being tired.
It wasn’t until decades later that I learned that Parks (42 years old at the time of the incident) wasn’t particularly tired. She was tired of giving in. Although the folk history of Rosa Parks sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t include this detail, Parks was, in fact, an activist — a member of the NAACP and other groups agitating for civil rights. So, why was the story distorted when relayed to school children?
Looking back to my childhood, I think that the (mostly white) people who comprised my world were generally supportive of civil rights (at least publicly). I think that most people understood that discriminatory laws were a bad thing and that it was good that those laws were gone or going away. At the same time, they saw the black people marching and protesting and engaging in (god forbid!) civil disobedience as ‘trouble makers’. They generally believed that things were gradually getting better for black people but that these activists were trouble; not only trouble, but (really!) setting back the cause.
So, there’s something insidious about the mythical Rosa Parks being cast as a heroic figure in the civil rights movement. It’s sort of amazing that just 10 years after her arrest, her story was relayed in a positive light by elementary school teachers to their students. At the same time, the fact that she was a civil rights activist prior to her act of resistance on that day had to be expunged from the story. She had to be a simple woman, tired after working all day who merely refused to give up her seat. It would not have been palatable to present a hero who was one of those trouble makers. She was just a person like you and I trying to get home after work.
I’ve been thinking about this today because it’s the anniversary of Parks’ disobedience but I’m often seeing how much racism still exists and, worse, how much racism is practiced by people thoroughly unaware of the issue. It’s built in to our society and we actually have to be vigilant and point it out when it’s evident. Rosa Parks was a courageous woman, even though a ‘trouble maker’, who did what was necessary to push back against the outrageous demeaning she was subjected to.