The Politics of Children’s Literature

The Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

By Herbert Kohl

Racism and the direct confrontation between African American and European people in the United States are issues usually considered too sensitive to be dealt with directly in the elementary school classroom. When African Americans and European Americans are involved in confrontation in children’s literature, the situation is routinely described as a problem between individuals that can be worked out on a personal basis. In the few cases where racism is addressed as a social problem, there has to be a happy ending. This is most readily apparent in the biographical treatment of Rosa Parks, one of the two names that most children in the United States associate with the civil rights movement in the South during the 1960s, the other being Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the past few years, during school visits I’ve made, I’ve talked with children about the civil rights movement. One of the things I ask the children is what they know of Rosa Parks and her involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott. This focus developed after I observed a civil rights play in a fourth grade classroom in Southern California about a year and a half ago. One scene in the play took place on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. A tired Rosa Parks got on the bus and sat down. The child portraying Mrs. Parks was dressed in shabby clothes and carried two worn shopping bags. She sat down next to the driver, and then other children got on the bus until all the seats in front were filled up. Then a boy got on and asked her to move. When she refused, the bus driver told her he didn’t want any trouble and politely asked her to move to the back of the bus. She refused again, and the scene ended. In the next scene we see a crowd of students, African American and European American, carrying signs saying “Don’t Ride the Buses,” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Blacks and Whites Together.” One of the students, playing Martin Luther King, Jr., addressed the rest of the class, saying something to the effect that African American and European American people in Montgomery got angry because Rosa Parks was arrested for not moving to the back of the bus, and that they were boycotting the buses until all people could ride wherever they wanted. The play ended with a narrator pointing out that the bus problem in Montgomery was solved by people coming together to protest peacefully for justice.

Before talking to the children about their perceptions of Rosa Parks and her motivations I had a moment to talk to the teacher about a major misrepresentation of facts in the play. There were no European Americans involved in boycotting the buses in Montgomery. The struggle was organized and maintained by the African American community, and to represent it as an interracial struggle was to take the power and credit away from that community. The teacher agreed that the play took some liberty with history but said that since his class was interracial it was better for all of the children to do the play as an integrated struggle. Otherwise, he said, the play might lead to racial strife in the classroom. I disagreed and pointed out that by showing the power of organized African Americans, it might lead all of the children to recognize and appreciate the strength oppressed people can show when confronting their oppressors. In addition, the fact that European Americans joined the struggle later on could lead to very interesting discussions about social change and struggles for justice. This could be related to the current situation in South Africa and the resurgence of overt racism in the United States. He disagreed and ended our chat by telling me how hard it was to manage an integrated classroom.

I contented myself with asking the children about Rosa Parks. The girl who played Mrs. Parks, Anna, told me that she imagined ‘Rosa,’ as she called Mrs. Parks, to be a poor woman who did tiring and unpleasant work. She added that she thought Rosa was on her way home to a large family that she had to take care of all by herself when she refused to move to the back of the bus. In other words, Rosa Parks was, in her mind, poor, a single parent with lots of children, and an unskilled worker. I asked her how she got that idea and she replied that’s just the kind of person she felt Rosa Parks must be. She added that nobody had ever told her that her view was wrong, so she never bothered to question it. Her teacher backed her up and claimed that she had made reasonable assumptions about Rosa Parks, ones which he felt were true to the way Rosa Parks was portrayed in the books they had in class. I couldn’t argue with that last comment.

I changed the subject and asked Anna how come Rosa Parks’ arrest led to a boycott. She said she didn’t know. Maybe Rosa had a friend who told everybody, or maybe it was in the newspaper. One of the other students suggested that her arrest was on TV and everybody came out to protest because they didn’t think it was right to arrest someone just for not moving to the back of the bus. The boycott was, to them, some form of spontaneous action that involved no planning or strategy.

Why Admire Rosa Parks?

All of the children admired Rosa Parks for not moving. Some said she must be a very stubborn person, others that she had to be so angry that she didn’t care what happened to her. They agreed that it took a special person to be so courageous and wondered if they would be able to muster such courage. I got the impression that Mrs. Parks’ exceptional courage might be an excuse for them to not act.

I decided to push the issue a bit and asked the class why Rosa Parks had to move to the back of the bus anyway. One of the African American children said it was segregated in the South back then, and African Americans and European Americans couldn’t do things together. When I asked why there was segregation those days, there was absolute silence. I shifted a bit and asked if the African Americans and European Americans in the classroom could do things together. One of the boys answered, “in school they do, mostly,” and since I was just a guest I left it at that. However, it was clear to me that issues of racial conflict were not explicitly discussed in the classroom, and that the play about the Montgomery bus boycott left the children with some vague sense of unity and victory, but with neither a sense of the history and nature of segregation, nor of the collective courage of the African American people who originated the struggle for civil rights in the United States. I have no idea whether there was any racism manifest in the everyday lives of the children in that classroom, but wondered whether they or the teacher were at all prepared to deal with it if it erupted.

The children’s visualization of Rosa Parks, whom they felt free to call by her first name, was particularly distressing. They imagined her to be poor, without education or sophistication, a person who acted on impulse and emotion rather than intelligence and moral conviction. There was no sense of her as a community leader or as part of an organized struggle against oppression. I decided to find out how common this view was and have been astonished to find that those children’s view of Rosa Parks is not at all different from that of most European American adults and almost all of the school children I have questioned.

My questioning has been limited to people in the United States, however.

The image of ‘Rosa Parks the Tired,’ and the story that goes with it exists on the level of a national cultural icon in the U.S. Sources of this image are school textbooks and children’s books, yet none of the books I’ve seen quotes a source for this personal information about Mrs. Parks. For most children in the U.S., their first encounter with the civil rights movement comes in school through these writings. Dozens of children’s books and textbooks I’ve looked at present the same version of “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.” This version can be synthesized into the story that follows:

“Rosa Was Tired: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott”

Rosa Parks was a poor seamstress. She lived in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1950s. Those days there still was segregation in parts of the United States. That meant that African Americans and European Americans were not allowed to use the same public facilities such as restaurants or swimming pools. It also meant that whenever it was crowded on the city buses African Americans had to give up seats in front to European Americans and move to the back of the bus.

One day on her way home from work Rosa was tired and sat down in the front of the bus. As the bus got crowded she was asked to give up her seat to a European American man, and she refused. The bus driver told her she had to go to the back of the bus, and she still refused to move. It was a hot day and she was tired and angry, and became very stubborn.

The driver called a policeman who arrested Rosa.

When other African Americans in Montgomery heard this, they became angry too, so they decided to refuse to ride the buses until everyone was allowed to ride together. The boycotted the buses.

The boycott, which was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., succeeded. Now African Americans and European Americans can ride the buses together in Montgomery.

Rosa Parks was a very brave person.

This story seems innocent enough. Rosa Parks is treated with respect and dignity, and the African American community is given credit for running the boycott and winning the struggle. It reflects the view of Mrs. Parks often found in adult literature as well as writing for children.

On closer examination based on research into the history of the Montgomery bus boycott, however, the generic story reveals some distressing characteristics that serve to turn an organized and carefully planned movement for social change into a spontaneous outburst based upon frustration and anger. The following annotations on “Rosa Was Tired” suggest that we need a new story, one more in line with the truth and directed as showing the organizational intelligence and determination of the African American community in Montgomery, as well as the role of the bus boycott in the larger struggle to desegregate Montgomery and the South.

The Annotated “Rosa Was Tired”

1. Rosa was a poor Seamstress who lived in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1950s.

Rosa Parks was one of the first women in Montgomery to join the NAACP and was its secretary for years. At the NAACP she worked with chapter president, E.D. Nixon, vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Parks learned about union struggles from him. She also worked with the youth division of the NAACP, and she took a youth NAACP group to visit the Freedom Train when it came to Montgomery in 1954. The train, which carried the originals of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, was travelling around the U.S. promoting the virtues of democracy.

Since its visit was a federal project, access to the exhibits could not be segregated.

Mrs. Parks took advantage of that fact to visit the train. There, Rosa Parks and the members of the youth group mingled freely with European Americans from Montgomery who were also looking at the documents. This overt act of crossing the boundaries of segregation did not endear Rosa Parks to the Montgomery political and social establishment.

Parks’ work as a seamstress in a large department store was secondary to her community work. In addition, as she says in an interview printed in My Soul is Rested (Howard Raines, Bantam, 1978 p. 35), she had almost a life history of “being rebellious against being mistreated because of my color.” She was well known to all of the African American leaders in Montgomery for her opposition to segregation, her leadership abilities and her moral strength.

Since the 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision, she had been working to desegregate the Montgomery schools. She had also attended an interracial meeting at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee a few months before the boycott. Highlander was known throughout the South as a radical education center that was overtly planning for the total desegregation of the South. At that meeting, which dealt with plans for school desegregation in the South, she indicated that she intended to become an active participant

in other attempts to break down the barriers of segregation.

Finally Rosa Parks had the support of her mother and her husband in her civil rights activities. To call Rosa Parks a poor tired seamstress and not talk about her role as a community leader as well, is to turn an organized struggle for freedom into a personal act of frustration. It is a thorough misrepresentation of the civil rights movement in Montgomery, Alabama and aninsult to Mrs. Parks as well. Here is a more appropriate way of beginning a children’s version of the Montgomery bus boycott:

It was 1955. Everyone in the African American community in Montgomery, Alabama knew Rosa Parks. She was a community leader and people admired her courage. All throughout her life she had opposed prejudice, even if it got her into trouble with European American people.

Children and the Reality of Racism

Those days there was still segregation in parts of the United States. That meant African Americans and European Americans were not allowed to use the same public facilities.

The existence of legalized segregation in the South during the 1950s is integral to the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, yet it is an embarrassment to many school people and difficult to explain to children without accounting for the moral corruption of the majority of the European American community in the South.

Locating segregation in the past is a way of avoiding dealing with its current manifestations and implying that racism is no longer a major problem within the United States. This is particularly pernicious at a time when overt racism is once again becoming a common phenomenon and when children have to be helped to understand and eliminate it.

Describing integration passively (“There was still segregation” instead of “European Americans segregated facilities so that African Americans couldn’t use them”) also ignores the issue of legalized segregation even though Mrs. Parks was arrested for a violation of the Alabama state law that institutionalized segregation in public facilities. It doesn’t talk overtly about racism. And it refers to “parts” of the United States, softening the tone and muddying the reference to the South.

I’ve raised the question of how to expose children to the reality of segregation and racism to a number of educators, both African American and European American. Most of the European American and a few of the African American educators felt that young children do not need to be exposed to the harsh and violent history of segregation in the United States. They worried about the effects such exposure would have on race relations in their classrooms, and especially about provoking rage on the part of African American students. The other educators felt that, given the resurgence of overt racism in the United States these days, allowing rage and anger to come out was the only way African American and European American children could work from the reality of difference and separation towards a common life. They felt that conflict was a positive thing that could be healing when confronted directly,and that avoiding the horrors of racism was just another way of perpetuating them. I agree with this second group and believe that our rewritten version of “Rosa Was Tired” might continue in this way:

Those days Alabama was legally segregated. That means that African American people were prevented by the state law from using the same swimming pools, schools and other public facilities as European Americans. There also were separate entrances, toilets and drinking fountains for African Americans and European Americans in places such as bus and train stations. The facilities African Americans were allowed to use were not only separate from the ones European Americans used, but they were also very inferior. The reason for this was racism, the belief that European Americans were superior to African Americans and that therefore, European Americans deserved better facilities.

Segregated Sections

Whenever it was crowded on the city buses African American people had to give up seats in front to European Americans and move to the back of the bus.

Actually African Americans were never allowed to sit in the front of the bus in the South those days. The front seats were reserved for European Americans. Between five and ten rows back the “colored” section began. When the front of the bus filled up, African Americans seated in the “colored” section had to give up their seats and move toward the back of the bus. Thus, for example, and elderly African American woman would have to give up her seat to a European American teen age male at the peril of being arrested. Consistent with the comments I’ve been making so far and with the truth of the experience of segregation, this sentence should be expanded as follows:

Those days public buses were divided into two sections, one at the front for European Americans which was supposed to be “for whites only.” From five to ten rows back the section for African Americans began. That part of the bus was called the “colored” section.

Whenever it was crowded on the city buses African American people were forced to give up seats in the “colored” section to European Americans and move to the back of the bus. For example, an elderly African American woman would have to give up her seat to a European American teenage male. If she refused she could be arrested for breaking the segregation laws.

On Dignity and History

One day on her way home from work Rosa was tired and sat down in the front of the bus.

Rosa Parks did not sit in the front of the bus. She sat in the front row of the “colored” section. When the bus got crowded she refused to give up her seat in the “colored” section to a European American. It is important to point this out as it indicates quite clearly that it was not her intent, on that day, to break the segregation laws.

At this point the story lapses into the familiar and refers to Rosa Parks as “Rosa.” The question of whether to use the first name for historical characters in a factual story is complicated. One argument in favor of doing it is that young children will more readily identify with characters who are presented in a personalized and familiar way. However, given that it was a sanctioned social practice in the South during the time of the story for European Americans to call African American adults by their first names as a way of reinforcing the African Americans’ inferior status (African Americans could never call European Americans by their first names without breaking the social code of segregation), it seems unwise to use that practice in the story.

In addition, it’s reasonable to assume that Rosa Parks was not any more tired on that one day than on other days. She worked at an exhausting full time job and was also active full time in the community. To emphasize her being tired is another way of saying that her defiance of segregation was an accidental result of her fatigue and consequent short temper on that particular day. Rage, however, is not a one day thing, and Rosa Parks acted with full knowledge of what she was doing. It is more respectful and historically accurate to make these changes:

December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks took the bus home as usual. She was tired and sat down in the front row of the “colored” section

Civil Disobedience, Not Mere Stubborness

As the bus got crowded she was asked to give up her seat to a European American man, and she refused. The bus driver told her she had to go to the back of the bus, and she still refused to move. It was a hot day , and she was tired and angry and became very stubborn.

The driver called a policeman who arrested Rosa.

This is the way that Rosa Parks described her experiences with buses:

“I had problems with bus drivers over the years because I didn’t see fit to pay my money into the front and then go to the back. Sometimes bus drivers wouldn’t permit me to get on the bus, and I had been evicted from the bus. But, as I say, there had been incidents over the years. One of the things that made this [incident]…get so much publicity was the fact that the police were called in and I was placed under arrest. See, if I had just been evicted from the bus and he hadn’t placed me under arrest or had any charges brought against me, it probably could have been just another incident.” (My Soul is Rested, p. 31)

Recently she described that day in the following way:

“On December 1, 1955, I had finished my day’s work as a tailor’s assistant in the Montgomery Fair Department Store and I was on my way home. There was one vacant seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus, which I took, alongside a man and two women across the aisle. There were still a few vacant seats in the white section in the front, of course. We went to the next stop without being disturbed. On the third, the front seats were occupied and this one man, a white man, was standing. The driver asked us to stand up and let him have those seats, and when none of us moved at his first words, he said, ‘You all make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.’ And the man who was sitting next to the window stood up, and I made room for him to pass by me. The two women across the aisle stood up and moved out.

When the driver saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up and I said, ‘No, I’m not.’

And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to call the police and have you arrested.’

I said, ‘You may do that.’

He did get off the bus, and I still stayed where I was. Two policemen came on the bus. One of the policemen asked me if the bus driver had asked me to stand and I said yes.

He said, ‘Why don’t you stand up?’

And I asked him, ‘Why do you push us around?’

He said ‘I do not know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.’”

(pages 19-20 Henry Hamption, Steve Fayer, Voices of Freedom, Bantam, N.Y. 1990)

Mere anger and stubbornness could not account for the clear resolve with which Rosa Parks acted. She knew what she was doing, understood the consequences and was prepared to confront segregation head-on at whatever sacrifice she had to make. A more accurate account of the event, taking into consideration Rosa Parks’ past history, might be:

As the bus got crowded the driver demanded that she give up her seat to a European American man, and move to the back of the bus. This was not the first time that this had happened to Rosa Parks. In the past she refused to move and the driver simply put her off the bus. Mrs. Parks hated segregation, and along with many other African American people refused to obey many of its unfair rules. She refused to do what the bus driver demanded.

The bus driver commanded her once more to go to the back of the bus and she stayed in her seat, looking straight ahead and not moving an inch. It was a hot day and the driver was angry and became very stubborn. He called a policeman who arrested Mrs. Parks.

The Boycott: Planned Resistance

When other African Americans in Montgomery heard this they became angry too, so they decided to refuse to ride the buses until everyone was allowed to ride together. They boycotted the buses.

The connection between Rosa Parks’ arrest and the boycott is a mystery in most accounts of what happened in Montgomery. Community support for the boycott is portrayed as being instantaneous and miraculously effective the very day after Mrs. Parks was arrested. Things don’t happen that way, and it is an insult to the intelligence and courage of the African American community in Montgomery to turn their planned resistance to segregation into a spontaneous emotional response. The actual situation was more interesting and complex. Not only had Rosa Parks defied the bus segregation laws in the past, according to E.D. Nixon, in the three months preceding Mrs. Parks’ arrest at least three other African American people had been arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up their bus seats to European American people. In each case, Nixon and other people in leadership positions in the African American community in Montgomery investigated the background of the person arrested. They were looking for someone who had the respect of the community and the strength to deal with the racist police force as well as all of the publicity that would result from being at the center of a court challenge to discrimination on buses.

This leads to the most important point left out in popularized accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott. Community leaders had long considered a boycott as a tactic to achieve racial justice. Of particular importance in this discussion was an African American women’s organization in Montgomery called the Woman’s Political Council (WPC). It was headed those days by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson who was a professor of English at Alabama State University in Montgomery, an African American university. In 1949 Ms. Gibson was put off a bus in Montgomery for refusing to move from her seat in the fifth row to the back of an almost empty bus. She and other women in Montgomery resolved to do something about bus segregation. As she says in her book The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (University of Tennessee Press, 1987), “It was during the period of 1949-1955 that the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery-founded in 1946 with Dr. Mary Burks as president and headed from 1950 on by me-prepared to stage a bus boycott when the time was ripe and the people were ready. The right time came in 1955.” (p. 17)

The boycott was an event waiting to take place, and that is why it could be mobilized over a single weekend. Rosa Parks’ arrest brought it about because she was part of the African American leadership in Montgomery and was trusted not to cave in under the pressure everyone knew she would be exposed to, not the least of which would be threats to her life.

This story of collective decision making, willed risk, and coordinated action is more dramatic than the story of an angry individual who sparked a demonstration; it is one that has more to teach children who themselves may have to organize and act collectively against oppressive forces in the future. Here’s one way to tell this complex story to young children:

Mrs. Parks was not the first African American person to be arrested in Montgomery for refusing to move to the back of the bus. In the months before her refusal at least three other people were arrested for the same reason. In fact, African American leaders in Montgomery were planning to overcome segregation. One way they wanted to do this was to have every African American boycott the buses. Since most of the bus riders in the city were African American, the buses would go broke if they refused to let African Americans and European Americans ride the bus as equals.

From 1949 right up to the day Mrs. Parks refused to move, the Woman’s Political Council of Montgomery believed a bus boycott would be an effective way to bring about change. They were just waiting for the time to be ripe and the African American people in Montgomery were ready to support the boycott. 1955 was the time.

However, none of the people arrested before Mrs. Parks were leaders. She was, and the day after she was arrested the leadership called a meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. They decided to begin their refusal to ride the buses at the beginning of the work week. They knew Mrs. Parks had the courage to deal with the pressure of defying segregation and would not yield even if her life was threatened.

On Monday the Montgomery bus boycott began.

King’s Role

The boycott, which was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., succeeded. Now African Americans and European Americans can ride the busses together in Montgomery.

Rosa Parks was a very brave person.

The boycott was planned by the WPC, E.D. Nixon and others in Montgomery. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a new member of the community. He had just taken over the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and when Nixon told him that Rosa Parks’ arrest was just what everybody was waiting for to kick off a bus boycott and assault the institution of segregation, King was at first reluctant. However, the community people chose him to lead, and he accepted their call.

The boycott lasted 381 inconvenient days, something not usually mentioned in children’s books. It did succeed and was one of the events that sparked the entire civil rights movement. People who had been planning an overt attack on segregation for years took that victory as a sign that the time was ripe even though the people involved in the Montgomery boycott did not themselves anticipate such result. Here’s one possible way to convey this to children:

There was a young new minister in Montgomery those days. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. People in the community felt that he was a special person and asked him to lead the boycott. At first he wasn’t sure. He worried about the violence that might result from the boycott.

However, he quickly made up his mind that it was time to participate, and he accepted the people’s call for him to be their leader.

The Montgomery bus boycott lasted 381 days. For over a year the African American people of Montgomery, Alabama stayed off the buses. Some walked to work, others rode bicycles or shared car rides. It was very hard for them, but they knew that what they were doing was very important for all African American people in the South.

The boycott succeeded, and by the end of 1956 African Americans could ride the buses in Montgomery as equals. However, the struggle for the complete elimination of segregation had just begun.

We all owe a great deal to the courage and intelligence of Rosa Parks and the entire African American community of Montgomery, Alabama. They took risks to make democracy work for all of us.

Concluding Thoughts

What remains then, is to retitle the story. The revised version is still about Rosa Parks, but it is also about the African American people of Montgomery, Alabama. It takes the usual, individualized version of the Rosa Parks’ tale and puts it in the context of a coherent, community based social struggle. This does not diminish Rosa Parks in any way. It places her, however, in the midst of a consciously planned movement for social change, and reminds me of the freedom song “We shall not be moved” for it was precisely Rosa Parks’ and the community’s refusal to be moved that made the boycott possible. For that reason the new title, “She Would Not be Moved: The Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott” makes sense.

As it turns out, my retelling of the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott is not the only recent one. In 1990, thirty-five years after the event, we finally have a full, moving and historically accurate one hundred and twenty four page retelling of the story written for young people. The book, Rosa Parks: The Movement Organizes (Silver Burdett, Englewood, NJ 1990) by Kai Friese, is one of nine volumes in the History of the Civil Rights Movement. The other volumes provide similar accounts of the life and works of Ella Baker, Stokely Charmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer, Jesse Jackson, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall and A. Phillip Randolph. Their series as a whole is a gift to all of us from a number of African American scholars who have reclaimed history from the distortions and omissions of years of irresponsible writing for children about the civil rights movement. They are models of how history and biography can directly confront racial conflict and illuminate social struggle. This is particularly true of the Rosa Parks volume which takes us up to date in Mrs. Parks’ life and informs us that she remained active over the years, working for social and economic justice in Congressman John Conyers’ office in Detroit.

The book, which credits all of the people involved in making the Montgomery boycott possible, provides a portrait of a community mobilized for justice. It also leaves us with a sense of the struggle that still needs to be made to eliminate racism in the United States.

When the story of the Montgomery bus boycott is told merely as a tale of a single heroic person, it leaves children hanging. Not everyone is a hero or heroine. Of course, the idea that only special people can create change is useful if you want to prevent mass movements and keep change from happening. Not every child can be a

Rosa Parks, but everyone can imagine her or himself as a participant in the boycott. As a tale of a social movement and a community effort to overthrow injustice, the Rosa Parks story as I’ve tried to rewrite it and as Kai Friese has told it, opens the possibility of every child identifying her or himself as an activist, as someone who can help make justice happen. And it is that kind of empowerment that people in the United States desperately need.

Herbert Kohl is an educator and author of numerous books on education including 36 Children, On Teaching, Growing Minds: On Becoming a Teacher, and Making Theatre: Developing Plays with Young People.