David Hecker: Students should be taught the truth about Rosa Parks and other civil rights leaders
The myth: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man because she was physically tired.
The truth: As Advance readers know, the truth is that Rosa Parks was not physically tired, but was tired of the humiliation, the second-class status; that Rosa Parks was an activist, the Secretary of the Montgomery NAACP. She was well respected for her work with African-American women who were victims of rape, was trained in organizing and civil disobedience at the Highlander School (a storied institution for social justice leadership), and was specifically chosen for this action as part of a strategic plan to achieve equality on the buses and throughout society.
Most of us of a certain age were taught the myth.
On Feb. 4, which would have been Ms. Parks 110th birthday, I was privileged to attend the premier showing of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, an event co-sponsored by my national union, the AFT. The documentary by journalist Soledad O’Brien was based on the book by AFT member Jeanne Theoharis. The documentary is spectacular, bringing the intelligence, commitment and courage of Rosa Parks to life. It should be a part of our schools’ curricula.
Unfortunately, the reluctance to teach the truth about Black history doesn’t end with Rosa Parks. There’s a reason why curriculums tend to focus more on Martin Luther King, Jr. and less on figures like Malcolm X and Fred Hampton — and it’s the same reason why many history textbooks obscure King’s tireless fight for radical social and economic change and reduce his legacy to platitudes.
And right now, right-wing lawmakers and activists across the country are actively working to make this problem worse, by censoring discussions of racism and accurate depictions of Black history in the classroom.
So why were many of us taught these myths, and why are right-wing forces still trying to cover up the reality of our history?
For one, some of the most powerful and privileged among us are afraid of the truth. The myth that a woman did not give up her seat because she was tired is safer for many. That this was a carefully planned act of civil disobedience is far more threatening.
Secondly, the truth is an education on how you build a movement, the hard, oftentimes tedious work, the patience you need to act strategically and not only out of anger.
From civil rights to the labor movement to the movements that advanced women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights and many more, it takes planning; it takes strategizing; it takes patience to make sure you have a plan that will work. If we make people believe Rosa Parks acted alone on the spur of the moment because she was physically tired, we are not educating people on what it takes to build society changing movements.
In fact, all that went into the iconic event of Ms. Parks not giving up her seat, and the Montgomery bus boycott that followed, should not just be a page in a textbook, but instead deeply analyzed as lessons to build on.
Consider that the bus boycott, including the coordination needed for boycotting buses and organizing the citywide program of African Americans with cars driving others to work, was all done without cell phones, texting, email, Facebook, TikTok, Instagram or other modern communication tools — but they did the work and made it happen.
There’s a lot we can learn from the racial, social and economic justice movements that have shaped American history. AFT Michigan is committed to fighting for honesty in education so that students across the state are taught an accurate account of how they unfolded. And in places where lawmakers have tied educators’ hands to prevent them from teaching the truth, it falls to all of us to fill in those gaps for our kids.
Rosa Parks deserves to be remembered for the woman she was, not a sanitized shadow of herself. We cannot let her true legacy disappear. Throughout Black History Month and beyond, I urge all reading this to think critically about the accounts you may have been taught in school, recognize the true legacies of historic civil rights leaders, and use the lessons they taught us to continue their fight for justice.