In my teens, I was active in the civil rights movement, though I lacked the courage to go to Mississippi in 1964. I did join picket lines, march in New York and Washington, and participate in other assorted and now forgotten (by me—it’s a memory thing) protests. Needless to say, I have never stopped caring.
Here’s something that makes me slightly nuts—in fact, it’s become such a pet peeve that I rattle on incessantly at writers’ conferences/retreats and annoy even myself. Why is there no picture book about Rosa Parks that tells the complete and true story? No matter who writes, who illustrates, and who publishes, important parts of this amazing and world-changing event have been neglected. I cannot find a single picture book for children that tells the whole truth. If you know of one, let me know.
Rosa Parks was not simply “tired.” Neither did she just decide one day to sit down on that famous bus. Rosa Parks was part of a movement—an organized and committed community of people, black and white, determined to change the way America treated blacks. She was secretary for the Montgomery NAACP, and her husband, Raymond, was involved in fundraising to save the Scottsboro boys. They worked together in the NAACP long before the bus boycott. Here is what she said in her autobiography, My Story:
"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 forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in."*
And here’s another thing: in July, 1955, Rosa Parks participated in a workshop at the Highlander Folk School. The original mission of Highlander, created in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West, was “to educate rural and industrial leaders for a new social order." By the 1950s, Highlander, in Tennessee, began to focus on the civil rights movement and sponsored integrated workshops. It trained activists, spread freedom songs (“We Shall Overcome” came out of Highlander), and took great risks every day.
So why do we settle for the popular version? Is it because we can’t handle more complex truths any more? Is it because writers aren’t doing their research? Is it because we are committed to a history that depends on individual heroes? Is it because J. Edgar Hoover saw Highlander as a grave threat to internal security, and even now we are afraid to look too deeply into that part of our history? Is it because publishers are afraid?
Or is it because we think children can’t handle the truth?
What do you think?
Photos of Mrs. Parks at Highlander are here: http://www.highlandercenter.org/photo-gallery-rosa-parks.asp
For more about Highlander: http://www.highlandercenter.org/index.html
* Parks, Rosa; James Haskins (1992). Rosa Parks: My Story. Dial Books. p. 116.