There is so much more about our history, especially in regards to the Civil Rights Movement, that we don’t learn about. We as white people are so eager to whitewash history, to bend and twist it in our favor that remembering more about what happened is essential to moving forward. We like to think that racism ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and with the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that all is equal after segregation ended because it removes responsibility from us to work on racial justice and destructing white supremacy.
One thing history classes twist is Rosa Parks. We learn about the quiet Rosa Parks who was too tired to move from her bus seat for a white patron and subsequently arrested. But there’s so much more to her. Parks had been an activist long before her famous arrest – she spent time working the Montgomery NAACP branch secretary, pushed for voter registration, fought for justice for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence, pressed for desegregation of schools and public space, and much more. She also worked on women’s rights – including supporting victims and survivors of rape and assault like Recy Taylor. Stuff You Missed In History Class has a two part episode (part one and part two) on Rosa Parks that covers more than just a tiny sliver of her life story.
Her famous arrest is what we learn the most about Rosa Parks but she wasn’t the first to exercise civil disobedience on a Montgomery bus. 15 year old Claudette Colvin was arrested nine months before Parks but Colvin’s arrest didn’t spark a boycott for various reasons. Leaders in the movement saw Colvin (and a couple others like her) as an unsuitable symbol for the movement and bus boycott in part because she was viewed as emotional and feisty but also because at the age of 15, she was pregnant out of wedlock with a much older married man. For decades, Colvin has remained just a footnote in history but she played just as an important role as many others.
And Rosa Parks wasn’t just physically tired that day she was arrested. This is one myth that paints Parks as an accidental activist instead of a fearless leader that had been working for justice and equality for years before. She eventually sought to set the record straight:
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 was at the end of a working day…. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
Like with what I wrote about for Martin Luther King Jr., we need to be relearning so much of our history and reclaiming the stories that are frequently ripped of context and understanding. Knowing that the FBI and other government agencies have been conducting surveillance on Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter leaders and supporters should be a part of common knowledge because it gives less credibility to a government hell bent on upholding the white supremacist status quo.
And learning more about activists like Rosa Parks honor those who have and continue to fight for justice.