How to discuss Rosa Parks?

My son was learning about Rosa Parks and as they were discussing it, he said that he didnt feel what she had done was really that big of a deal. Of course the teacher didnt like that answer and asked him to explain and my son said that all she did was refuse to give up her seat and got arrested but the bigger “heroes” were the people who ran the boycott.

And he is right. Rosa Parks did not end bus segregation in Montgomery Alabama, nor was she the first black woman to be arrested for not giving up her seat. She was though, the person they decided would make a good test case.

Here is a link to a discussion about another woman Claudette Colvin, who was arrested for the same issue 9 months before Rosa Parks. Her case was the one which made it to the supreme court, not Rosa Parks and it was Colvin’s case which also got the wheels rolling so to speak, so the later boycott would succeed. So frankly I think Colvin should be getting the same publicity as Parks.

Here is aclip from the movie “Barber Shop” where they discuss the issue.

One kid called my sons answer racist but I generally back him up. Rosa Parks should be respected for what she did but in reality, she was only a small part of a larger picture. The way I see it schools only teach the basics and dont get into a lot of depth on an issue.

What do you all think?

History is full of people whose face and or name wind up being the “face” of the movement. Doesn’t mean they were the first, or even the bravest. But, so what? They were there, they did some act or some part of it. If they wound up, for whatever reason, becoming the face or name most associated with that movement or result, then so be it.

So, I guess in a way, I’m agreeing with you, but at the same time, I will say that what she did took tremendous courage and belief in her convictions.

To say " that all she did was refuse to give up her seat and got arrested " seriously understates the courage she exhibited, and to my ear, comes across as disrespectful.

As much as I hate to admit it, I think OP has a point. How many other people tried to stand up for themselves, got arrested or beaten up, and were completely forgotten by history? I am not trying to diminish her achievement, but it seems to me a matter of luck that she winds up being the poster child of a movement that involved many, many people.

Ms. Colvin was 15 at the time. I wonder if her age had something to do with the relative obscurity of her case?

Rosa came from a politically active family and was a far better example. True - if she hadn’t had the courage to do what she did, someone else would have… eventually. She was the spark that ignited the fire.

For a modern day example look at Malala Yousafzai.

Exactly. Considering that in recent history, arrest and a fine was the least bad outcome to be expected - and she was fairly poor to begin with - it did take courage. Boycotts would not have happened without sympathetic test cases like Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin. And the risk was not unheard of that physical violence could have been the result.

I suppose the point is, nobody, not even Rosa Parks, single-handedly brought about desegregation; after all, Martin Luther King also did not go it alone, he had a massive organization behind him and others did much of the work and took most of the beatings. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost…” and all that. Sometimes being the nail gets you noticed. Sometimes you just get hammered down.

Except that Malala Yousafzai has accomplished exactly squat. If anything, jihadist terrorism is worse than it has ever been. The only people who seem to care about Malala are the Western countries… Not the countries most in need of reform.

To dismiss her is indeed disrespectful, I agree.

She is the face of the movement because she represents a tipping point. Yes, there were many others involved, both before her and after her. That doesn’t diminish that she represents a moment in time, where her simple action set off something new.

More heroic than an astronaut riding a cylinder, up and back. They weren’t steering the thing and a monkey went before them, yet a nation adores them.

Sometimes it’s about perception, and timing more than the action itself.

How does it harm you that this woman be celebrated for the small yet significant role she played in events? Do you believe people are unaware it was a large movement with many significant moments and numerous persons, each contributing?

I think your son was right, but probably didn’t express himself quite as clearly in class as he did to you. “Rosa Parks wasn’t a big deal” is generally going to offend people. “Rosa Parks wasn’t as big a deal as we make her out to be because she was just one part of a concerted effort to desegregate Montgomery buses and the South” is not.

I agree that Parks didn’t act alone. She was part of a larger movement. But she did volunteer to put herself on to the frontline of the conflict. There were violent people who opposed desegregation and Parks was making herself a possible focus for attacks. So the greater credit she has received is balanced by the greater risk she was taking.

Malala Yousafzai’s goal has been to increase access to education for girls, not to defeat jihadi terrorism.

But this is always the case. What do you think a “poster child,” a face of a movement, is? She stands for all those people.

I suppose this gives you an opportunity to ask your son to place himself in the Rosa Parks place. Being asked to take a public stand against segregation a mere 3 months after a 14 year old boy was mutilated and killed by this shining piece of humanity (and he was aquited after an all white male jury deliberated for about an hour)

ETA: My point being that it’s hard to empathize with people and their actions if you fail to take into account the context their actions take place in.

Since the OP is looking for opinions, let’s move this to IMHO.

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Not to mention, if Ms. Colvin’s acts had been used to begin the end of segregation, bigots would’ve used her previous behavior against her (obviously) and then the focus would be on how “bad” a person she was, not what she was fighting against or stood for. I think it was a very necessary and calculated move to combat the racism of the era. For more examples, see how well it goes nowadays when political opponents attack their adversary versus their platforms.

I have heard the Rosa Parks narrative presented as if she was simply an average, tired black woman who spontaneously decided that enough was enough, and thru her courage a whole movement crystallized and thus civil rights were born. In fact, that is more or less how I was first told about the incident.

That’s not particularly true - she was an activist before hand, and they decided she was the perfect test case to get the ball rolling. Was she courageous and praiseworthy? Of course. But it doesn’t make as good a story as Ms. Average Jane Who Stood Up to the System. Maybe a myth was necessary to inspire people.


I don’t think that’s the case. It’s more that a junior high history class isn’t long enough to cover all of the context, like the NAACP choosing Parks as a test case before the fact.

The fact that Medgar Evers was refused admission to a white hospital as he bled to death is also not commonly discussed, even though his assassination was a significant event in the CR movement.

As mentioned above what your son said could have been expressed in a different way, but the teacher should have known that and opened and broadened the discussion on the subject. Rosa Parks’ name has been associated with the larger issue, and her particular role can be considered relative to that of others, and also considered as symbol of the entire subject.

I certainly hope the teacher addressed the other student who called your son a racist.

If this is a major concern for you and/or your son you should help express his thoughts in a comprehensive manner and turn this into one of those teachable moments for the teacher and his class.

None of this surprises me though, it’s back to that old staple, when the teacher asks “Who discovered America?” just say Christopher Columbus and move on. When the teacher teaches to the test just give them the test answer.

I also seriously doubt we are getting the whole story here.

Why? Obviously the OP didn’t provide a transcript of the class discussion but it sounds like credible summary of the events.