We learn much from how we present our heroes. A few years ago, on Martin Luther King. Day, I was interviewed on CNN. So was Rosa Parks, by phone from Los Angeles. “We’re very honored to have her,” said the host. “Rosa Parks was the woman who wouldn’t go to the back of the bus.
“She wouldn’t get up and give her seat in the white section to a white person. That set in motion the year-long bus boycott in Montgomery. It earned Rosa Parks the title of ‘mother of the Civil Rights movement.’”
I was excited to hear Parks’s voice and to be part of the same show. Then it occurred to me that the host’s description–the story’s standard rendition and one repeated even in many of her obituaries–stripped the Montgomery boycott of all of its context. Before refusing to give up her bus seat, which was actually at the front of the black section, Parks had been active for twelve years in the local NAACP chapter, serving as its secretary. The summer before her arrest, she’d had attended a ten-day training session at Tennessee’s labor and civil rights organizing school, the Highlander Center, where she’d met an older generation of civil rights activists, like South Carolina teacher Septima Clark, and discussed the recent Supreme Court decision banning “separate-but-equal” schools. During this period of involvement and education, Parks had become familiar with previous challenges to segregation: Another Montgomery bus boycott, fifty years earlier, successfully eased some restrictions; a bus boycott in Baton Rouge won limited gains two years before Parks was arrested; and the previous spring, a young Montgomery woman had also refused to move to the back of the bus, causing the NAACP to consider a legal challenge until it turned out that she was unmarried and pregnant, and therefore a poor symbol for a campaign.
In short, Rosa Parks didn’t make a spur-of-the-moment decision. She didn’t single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts, but she was part of an existing movement for change, at a time when success was far from certain. We all know Parks’s name, and should be inspired by her courage, but few of us know about Montgomery NAACP head E.D. Nixon, who served as one of her mentors and first got Martin Luther King involved. Nixon carried people’s suitcases on the trains, and was active in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the union founded by legendary civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph. He played a key role in the campaign. No one talks of him, any more than they talk of JoAnn Robinson, who taught nearby at an underfunded and segregated Black college and whose Women’s Political Council distributed the initial leaflets following Parks’s arrest. Without the often lonely work of people like Nixon, Randolph, and Robinson, Parks would likely have never taken her stand, and if she had, it would never have had the same impact.
This in no way diminishes the power and historical importance of Parks’s refusal to give up her seat. But it reminds us that this tremendously consequential act, along with everything that followed, depended on all the humble work that Parks and others undertook earlier on. It also reminds us that Parks’s initial step of getting involved in the NAACP was just as courageous and critical as the stand on the bus all of us have heard about.
People like Parks shape our models of social commitment. Yet most citizens do not know the full story of her involvement. And the conventional stripped-down retelling creates a standard so impossible to meet, it may actually make it harder for us to get involved, inadvertently removing away Parks’s most powerful lessons of hope.