It was Rosa Parks' birthday yesterday and I was reminded of how frustrating the lesson you get on her in grade school is. The story that she was an old lady that just then and there decided to not get up from her bus seat because she was exhausted from work. She comments on this in her autobiography, Rosa Parks: 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.
Aside from the untrue notions that that she was old or tired, the idea that is also often pushed is that she stumbled upon the Civil Rights movement with this defiant act is also totally false. In fact, she had been involved with the NAACP for a decade and had been actively challenging discrimination in her personal life with things like her multiple attempts to register to vote and a previous incident on a segregated bus before then. Even prior still, her husband was very involved with the NAACP's raising money for the defense for the Scottsboro Boys. She was also elected as the secretary for her chapter of the NAACP where, among other things, she investigated and organized around the rape of Recy Taylor who only recently got an apology for the injustice against her.
So when we talk about Rosa Parks and celebrate the "first lady of civil rights", let's put aside that tired (pun intended) story about this weary old woman who tripped her way into something amazing and represent her as a woman who dedicated her life to eradicating racial inequality.
If you are interested in more about Rosa Parks, I highly recommend At The Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. There is a newish book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, that I can't wait to read. Also, the most recent Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast is a two parter on her life.