The Rosa Parks of textbooks—a tired Alabama bus passenger whose small, solitary act of defiance helped ignite the civil rights movement—leaves a lot out. The distorted fable misleads us at a time when the real story could help the nation understand its history and find a way past it, Jeanne Theoharis writes in an opinion piece in the New York Times. "Over the years, I have been rebelling against second-class citizenship," Parks said. "It didn't begin when I was arrested." She was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955, but she had begun her civil rights work in 1931 on behalf of nine Black teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women who were known as the "Scottsboro Boys." Parks spent a decade pushing the Montgomery NAACP to become more active in addressing voter registration, criminal justice, and desegregation, Theoharis writes.
Parks worked with young people, encouraging more activism against segregation. Parks didn't meekly get off the bus, she asked police officers, "Why do you push us around?" Indicted under an old anti-syndicalism law during the boycott that followed, she turned herself in to police rather than wait for arrest. After her battles in the South, she moved to Detroit and fought the racism of the North, Theoharis writes. She was continually frustrated with the pace of change. "I don't believe in gradualism," Parks said, "or that whatever is to be done for the better should take forever to do." Yet the myth endures that "a simple seamstress changes the course of history with a single act, decent people did the right thing and the nation inexorably moved toward justice," Theoharis writes. It's the view that President George W. Bush evoked when honoring her by saying, "one candle can light the darkness." That's not how change happened, Theoharis says: It was disruptive and slow-moving. Parks persevered. "She placed her greatest hope in the militant spirit of young people," Theoharis writes. (You can read the full piece here.)