I believe I was in college when I first learned of Rosa Parks. The story, as I recall, was that on Dec. 1, 1955, a meek middle-aged woman was just too tired after a day of work to relinquish her seat on a city bus to a white man. This was the Jim Crow South in what had been the first capital of the Confederacy: Montgomery, Alabama.
The only part of that narrative that is actually true is that she did not give up her seat. It is often said that when she sat down, black people stood up. In Montgomery, they actually walked for 361 days to protest laws that required blacks to sit in the rear half of the city buses and to begin giving them up to whites as needed.
That old story was not the story, as is apparent in a new exhibit that opened at the Library of Congress last week: “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words.” When that old story was circulated, perhaps it was a convenient history in service of somebody’s notion of what would inspire — or make a good fundraising pitch. Perhaps that was all that some chronicler could imagine as the story behind the resistance.
“I think it’s important that we liberate Rosa Parks and liberate ourselves from the tyranny of this superficial history,” Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker, has said.
That history is made to bend to the needs of an era should come as no surprise. We see it every day. In some circles Nikki Haley became a hero in 2015 when, as governor of South Carolina, she called for a removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol. For many South Carolinians, she said, that flag was a “deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past.” Then many people thought that was the right response after the massacre of nine black people in a Charleston church by a Confederate-flag loving domestic terrorist. Now it seems she had said what was politically expedient. A new calculus has her offering a different spin in 2019: The flag actually represents “service, sacrifice and heritage.” Its meaning, she said in an interview on a podcast, was tragically “hijacked” four years ago by that Charleston murderer.
Perhaps it is inevitable that each generation puts a stamp on the past. The power dynamics of who disseminates a history becomes key. One version of an African proverb says, “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” We live in a time when more lions are telling more stories — and not just about black lives, but also other people who have been ignored or misportrayed in the American story.
In a pluralistic society, filled with the tired and the poor, the rich and the wise from all points of the globe, aren’t there many stories to know? And shouldn’t the textbooks catch up? When I learn something new, as happens often, I am reminded of the reaction of a college student visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture for the first time. Overwhelmed by the eye-opening revelations on one floor after the other, she wondered aloud: “Why am I just now learning all this?”
I began learning more about Rosa Parks in 1988 when I interviewed her after she walked off the history book pages and into a New York church to urge people to register to vote. I learned about her work in the NAACP in Alabama, beginning a decade before the 1955 bus incident, and of the leadership training workshops she had attended. Intent on assuring that a committed warrior rather than tired feet would be the theme of her eventual obituary in the New York Times, I began writing it then. She died in 2005. Like many people, I learned only a couple of years ago about her courage and fortitude as the NAACP’s investigator after the 1944 rape of a young black woman, Recy Taylor, in Abbeville, Alabama.
The sanitized version of her story now gradually cast aside, we get a grown folks’ version in the multimedia exhibit at the Library of Congress. We read her words written on note paper, on stationery, even on the back of a paper bag. We hear her words as Rosa Parks tells her story and continues to call us to action.
Roar, lioness, roar.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: email@example.com.