We tend to picture the civil rights heroine Rosa Parks as an ordinary person who possessed unusual grace, dignity, and Christian piety.

We think of her as someone who, spontaneously and with little thought for her own safety or self-interest, followed her conscience and refused to submit to unjust Jim Crow laws of segregation on the buses in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Her simple act—refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, even on pain of arrest—invigorated the movement that fundamentally changed American life.

One version of the story, from a 1991 elementary school social studies textbook, goes as follows:

When Rosa Parks rode on a bus, she had to sit all the way in the back. Her city had a law. It said black people could not sit in the front of a bus.

One day Rosa was tired. She sat in the front. The bus driver told her to move. She did not. He called the police. Rosa was put in jail.

Some citizens tried to help. One of them was Martin Luther King, Jr. The citizens decided to stop riding buses until the law was changed.

Their plan worked. The law was changed. Soon, many other unfair laws were changed. Rosa Parks led the way!

Why is this story of Rosa Parks the one that has become popularly known? Why was this the story that began to circulate even while the bus boycott was in progress, becoming part of American culture and historical memory? Was it because the story is true? Or was it because Rosa Parks (or others close to her at the time) told the story this way? Or did this version of events become dominant because it was useful for those who decided to pass it on? Or finally, did it become popular because it fit a cultural template about the power of individuals?

All of these hypotheses may help to explain what I will call the Standard Rosa Parks Story. But the prevalence of the story cannot be reduced to its veracity, to the power of personal witness, to social utility, to cultural “fit,” or even to a combination of all of these factors.

There is also a Revised Standard Rosa Parks Story that is as indignant as the standard story is inspiring. It suggests that the standard account is inaccurate, and profoundly misleading in its omissions. Parks did not sit in the front of the bus. That would have been a provocative act, and asking for trouble. Rather, she sat in the first row of the section for blacks, where whites could sit if other seats in the white section were taken. This detail is important because it makes clear that Parks’s defiance was not premeditated; she did not choose a seat in order to be arrested.

What is also omitted and implicitly denied by the Standard Story is that Rosa Parks was a dedicated civil rights activist. Her husband Raymond had protested the prosecution of the Scottsboro boys in the 1930s, and had been a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rosa herself was a long-time NAACP member, and in 1955, the secretary of the Montgomery chapter. She was an advisor of its youth group. In the summer of 1955, she participated in a civil rights training workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

The Montgomery NAACP had been seeking a test case to challenge the segregated bus system. They considered 15-year-old Claudette Colvin when she was arrested for violating the bus segregation rules on March 2, 1955, but a single, pregnant teenager did not strike NAACP leaders as someone able to withstand the publicity, harassment, and emotional trauma that taking such a case to trial would present. Three other black women were arrested for the same infraction in the following months, but it was only with the arrest of Rosa Parks on December 1 that NAACP leaders were convinced they had the case they wanted.

The educator Herbert Kohl, championing the Revised Story, has written, “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 an insult to Mrs. Parks as well.” In his 2005 book examining how the story of Rosa Parks has been told in school books, Kohl suggested this revised version for children:

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.

This is reasonably consistent with the known facts of the case, and of the life of Rosa Parks.

What this suggests is that the Standard Rosa Parks Story has become familiar not because it is true. In important ways it is untrue and misleading. More truthful accounts are readily available. So why did the Standard Rosa Parks Story, rather than the Revised Standard alternative account, become so well known?

The Many Faces of Rosa Parks

Not all books for children omit Mrs. Parks’ political activism. David A. Adler’s 1993 A Picture Book of Rosa Parks, illustrated by Robert Casilla, is straightforwardly biographical, beginning with “Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913.” It follows her life chronologically, noting Rosa’s marriage to Raymond Parks, “a barber and a man active in the struggle for the rights of African Americans.” It notes that she joined the NAACP in the 1940s, and was soon elected secretary of the Montgomery branch.

In contrast, Meet Rosa Parks, by Patricia A. Pingry, and illustrated by Steven Walker, is a 2008 picture book that begins: “Little Rosa Parks was walking home from school one day.” It establishes Rosa’s sense of justice as a child. It notes that “she joined Raymond in helping the black people of Montgomery. They helped them when they were sick. They helped them when they were broke. They helped them when they were arrested.” The book personalizes and depoliticizes her charitable efforts.

A prize-winning version by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier, and simply called Rosa, published in 2005, notes the pivotal role in launching the bus boycott played by Jo Ann Robinson, an African American professor at Alabama State and president of the Women’s Political Council. But it says nothing of Parks’s organized political activities. Describing the day of December 1, 1955, it politicizes her exhaustion: “She realized she was tired. Not tired from work but tired of putting white people first. Tired of stepping off sidewalks to let white people pass, tired of eating at separate lunch counters and learning at separate schools.” Here Rosa Parks has a strong sense of justice, but not a record of political action.

Each of these books is eloquent in its own way. While they are better than most of the school books Kohl cites, it is easy to share Kohl’s indignation that Pingry and Giovanni, like most other accounts, reduce or eliminate the role of organized political action. They thereby foster a sense that history is a matter of individual motivation, and individual fault or achievement, and not of more complicated social processes.

They do not explicitly deny that Rosa Parks was a political activist. Kohl cites a work that does, by the best-selling spiritual writer, Robert Fulghum. In a 1988 essay, Fulghum discusses how Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat when commanded by the bus driver, and notes: “Rosa Parks. Not an activist or a radical. Just a quiet, conservative, churchgoing woman
with a nice family and a decent job as a seamstress.” Fulghum drew from the pool of common lore available in the Standard Rosa Parks Story, and he is not alone. In commemorative addresses
after Parks died in 2005, activists, civil rights leaders, and politicians of every stripe recited versions of that story again and again, as proof that a single individual acting alone can change the world. But as sociologist Aldon Morris observed in his 1984 study of the civil rights movement, “Mrs. Parks was deeply rooted in the black protest tradition.”

The Revised Standard tale restores politics to the story of Rosa Parks. It restores the importance of community. It restores social, as opposed to strictly individual, action. But the belief that the Standard Story dominates because it fits a highly individualistic American culture is too glib. Though mainstream American culture is famously individualistic, this does not explain everything, least of all the rhetoric that treasures and even fetishizes “family,” “church,” and “community,” and that touts teamwork (“There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’”) in high school and college sports and in corporate culture.

To understand the triumph of the Standard Rosa Parks Story, we need to go deeper.

Strategic Spontaneity

Sociologist Francesca Polletta’s study of the culture of social movements, including the civil rights movement, shows that social movement participants have often understood their own experience in terms of spontaneous action. She calls attention to the four black students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College whose sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 launched the sit-ins that spread to 54 cities in nine states in only two months.

One of the four students, Franklin McCain, later explained: “Four guys met, planned, and went into action. It was just that simple.” Well, he should know. But why did he fail to mention that all four were members of Greensboro’s NAACP Youth Council? Or that they were in communication with leaders of 1950s sit-ins elsewhere in North Carolina? “Why,” Polletta asks, “do activists so often describe protest as sprung from the head of Zeus, ignoring or downright denying the planning that preceded it? Why do they cast themselves not as strategic actors, but as swept up by forces over which they have no control?”

Rosa Parks’s earliest explanation of her act of defiance, like that of Franklin McCain, emphasized its spontaneity. Here is a radio interview (with Sidney Rogers) on Pacifica Radio in April 1956, a few months after her arrest, and while the bus boycott was still going on:

Rogers: Well, Mrs. Parks, had you planned this?
Parks: No, I hadn’t.
Rogers: It just happened.
Parks: Yes, it did.
Rogers: Well, had there been many times before in your life when you thought that maybe you were going to do just that kind of thing?
Parks: I hadn’t thought that I would be the person to do this. It hadn’t occurred to me.
Rogers: But don’t you suppose you and many others also thought one time or another you were going to do this thing, sooner or later?
Parks: Well, we didn’t know just what to expect. In our area we always tried to avoid trouble and be as careful as possible to stay out of trouble, along this line. I want to make very certain that it is understood that I had not taken a seat in the white section as has been reported in many cases.

Here we see that Franklin McCain and Rosa Parks insisted that their actions were spontaneous. The question of “spontaneity” in social protest, and specifically in the civil rights movement, has long been a topic of interest. The question was forced upon civil rights activists by their adversaries, who railed that the only reason the movement spread was that “outside agitators”—northerners, communists, outsiders, and subversives—had stirred up the South’s contented “Negroes.” Activists therefore emphasized their spontaneity as evidence that their protests were independent of outside forces. It was vital for activists to appear moderate, non-threatening, and un-pre-meditated when their actions exposed them to terrorist rage, violence, and murder.

This helps explain why, in telling their stories, activists edited out their own political involvement. But, there is more. As Polletta suggests, stories are not only strategic devices. They are also efforts to “make sense of the unfamiliar.” They “assimilate confusing events into familiar frameworks.” Sit-in participants told and retold the story of their own actions as “spontaneous,” “exploding,” “welling up,” and “like a fever,” all in an attempt to capture “the indefinable moment when a group of separate individuals became a collective actor.”

The meetings of the NAACP Youth Council help explain Franklin McCain’s heroism just as Rosa Parks’s political activity helps explain hers, but it is not sufficient. The actions they took generated some surplus meaning that is not accounted for by prior social networks and political organizing. There is an element of chemistry or magic here, or, at any rate, something that feels like chemistry or magic to the participants. When they try to put that “magic” into words, activists are drawn to language that goes beyond planning and preparation.

When Parks herself wrote a memoir (with writer Jim Haskins) decades after 1955, she told her story as a response to those that had already grown up around her: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was 42. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” This is the Rosa Parks that Nikki Giovanni’s book echoes. This is the Rosa Parks Aldon Morris encountered when he interviewed her in 1981.

This is not to say, in her account with Haskins, that she imagined that she would become the test case the NAACP had sought. “I did not think about that at all. In fact if I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me, I might have gotten off the bus. But I chose to remain.”

The Revised Standard Rosa Parks Story offers a political analysis of the shortcomings of the Standard Story. Polletta’s work gives us the basis for a sociological analysis, one that helps us understand why participants in social movements may offer depoliticized accounts of their own actions.

But there’s still more: participants who tell their stories are seeking not only to explain their own behavior to themselves, but they are also trying to present themselves to specific audiences in specific interactional situations.

Political Storytelling

Telling a story is a social interaction, not an abstract or ivory-tower chronicling of history. Social interaction works within a variety of constraints, and there is a norm of linguistic modesty. The telling of a personal story implies egotism and is likely to make most speakers a bit uncomfortable. This discomfort can be deflected if the teller resorts to a kind of “anyone in the same position would have done the same thing” view.

In a related phenomenon, sociologist Nina Eliasoph shows that public-spirited people hide their public-spirited selves. Why? Because abiding by a “political etiquette” shows humility. To emphasize one’s own “public spirit” implies knowing what other people should do, possessing some moral insight that others do not have. This is implicitly undemocratic, “high horse,” and presumptuous. Therefore the political activists Eliasoph interviewed were more likely to explain their political engagement as stemming from self-interest than as arising from principles. It is not that this was instrumentally orchestrated to win support or affection: “political avoidance was a culture, not a strategy,” Eliasoph concluded. That may describe Rosa Parks and Franklin McCain, too. The dynamics of public discourse may be better understood through the microsociology of Erving Goffman than through the power-centered macrosociology of Karl Marx and other theorists.

So, three factors help explain why the Standard Rosa Parks Story became pervasive even among participants in the civil rights movement. First, it was an effort to deflect criticism that the movement was driven by outsider agitators, and not by people resisting injustice they themselves have experienced. Second, it was an attempt to account for behavior participants themselves did not fully understand. Third, it conformed to the norm of political etiquette: linguistic modesty allowed activists to avoid appearing arrogant or morally presumptuous.

For all of these reasons, political activists have cooperated in promoting a tale that captures less actual lead-up to decisive political action than sociologists find credible. The roots of the Standard Rosa Parks Story lie not in an attempt to serve a dominant culture, but to deflect dangerous criticism, to understand activists’ own inspiration, and to manifest modesty.

Over time, the conditions for telling the stories of political heroism change, becoming part of the work of preserving and passing on historical memories. Pre-school children to whom picture books are addressed, and elementary-school students, are encouraged to love Rosa Parks and to believe that anyone can change the world—if only they embody virtue, faith, charity, goodness, and courage. This is a noble and democratic sentiment. And it is no wonder that Rosa Parks has become its embodiment.

But Herbert Kohl and others rightly criticize this narrative. Marian Wright Edelman, a leading figure in a next generation of civil rights leaders, writes in an introduction to Kohl’s book: “Putting Mrs. Parks’s story in its full context allows children to get a much fuller sense of the kinds of planned activism and community action that happened in small towns and larger cities across the South during the civil rights movement.” But then Edelman turns around, emphasizing that children should know that “courageous leaders like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, and that they weren’t superhumans with magical powers. They were ordinary people, just like all of the other parents, neighbors, and ministers in the community, and like all of the familiar adults in our children’s lives today.”

Edelman, then, valiantly seeking to endorse the Revised Story, winds up giving equal weight to the Standard Story. This is just as well. There is much value in the familiar Rosa Parks story. But no one, at least no adult, should fail to know that Rosa Parks was brave, not just in one transformative moment, but in the many years leading up to it. Her lifetime led to that moment, even as the moment transcended her lifetime and endowed it with more meaning than a single story can easily contain.

Recommended Resources

Brinkley, Douglas. Rosa Parks (Penguin, 2000). An excellent brief biography of Rosa Parks.

Kohl, Herbert. She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (New Press, 2005). Provides a critical study of the portrayal of Rosa Parks in school textbooks.

Schwartz, Barry. “Collective Forgetting and the Symbolic Power of Oneness: The Strange Apotheosis of Rosa Parks,” Social Psychology Quarterly (2009), 72:123-142. A fine essay that highlights how “history” and “commemoration” differ.

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