Rosa Parks: Abused and Misused

It’s bad enough that Rosa Parks’ decision in 1955 to stay put rather than give up her bus seat for a white man is so often seen as the reaction of a tired seamstress rather than the purposeful action of a committed civil rights activist. But when a state legislator – one with a degree in political science, no less – invokes Rosa Parks to support states’ rights and oppose health care for the disadvantaged, it’s downright galling.

It’s also a troubling sign of what happens when a nation doesn’t work hard to remember its history.

The incident, in Idaho, was brought to our attention by civil rights icon Julian Bond, who is also an emeritus member of the Board of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I thought you’d like to see this,” he wrote in an email to which he’d attached a copy of a news article from the Idaho Statesman.

The article described how Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, the third-ranking “Republican leader in the Idaho House,” cited Mrs. Parks when he stood to oppose the creation of a state-run health exchange, required as part of the health care reform act passed by Congress in 2009. “One little lady got tired of the federal government telling her what to do,” he said. “I’ve reached that point, Mr. Speaker, that I’m tired of giving into the federal government.”

As most teachers know, the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation on buses were made by the states. Rosa Parks’ arrest triggered the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott. And it was only after the United States Supreme Court—a branch of the federal government—ruled such segregation unconstitutional that the bus boycott ended.

Maybe Crane missed the day in high school when they covered that lesson. Or perhaps he’s just not very good at remembering small details. That’s how he saw it, anyway, when he characterized it as “a slight mistake.”

We won’t even discuss the way he diminished Mrs. Parks’ legacy by calling her a “little lady.” Or that he missed the point about protecting the dispossessed and disadvantaged, the focus of her life’s work.

It does remind, us, though, that Idaho received a grade of F in our 2011 report Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011, mainly because it leaves the decision about what to teach to individual districts. It’s entirely possible that Mr. Crane had perfect attendance in high school after all.

It’s worrisome that the important lessons of our shared history can be lost in just a couple of generations, even while many of those who participated in that history are still with us. Thankfully, one of them still knows how to stand up and speak:

“It is unsurprising that state Rep. Brent Crane did not know that Rosa Parks was fighting against states' rights rather than the federal government, when she disobeyed Alabama's segregation laws; after all, Idaho received an F in teaching civil rights history in a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That ignorance can be remedied if the state follows Mississippi's example and mandates civil rights history be taught so young people in the future will not make such a foolish mistake.” --JULIAN BOND, Washington, D.C.

Costello is director of Teaching Tolerance.



Actually, Rosa herself has

Submitted by James24 on 25 September 2013 - 8:39am.

Actually, Rosa herself has stated several times that in fact she was tired. She sat down because she was tired. She goes on to say that she stayed in that seat when asked to move because she did not believe it was right to make her move simply because she was black.
So, she did take a stand when they asked her to move. However, her reason for sitting was because she was tired. Those are her words.

rosa was too brave to move

Submitted by trey arnold on 25 November 2013 - 3:09pm.

rosa was too brave to move out of the seat

While as a history teacher I

Submitted by Brian Bunn on 19 September 2013 - 9:36am.

While as a history teacher I see the misunderstanding in the statement, I do have to bring up a few questions. Might the metaphor of someone standing up for their rights be an appropriate one? I understand many on this forum might disagree with the political stance of the speaker, but to dismiss his entire argument is unfair. Certainly Ms. Parks was standing up for her rights, as it seems was the speaker. In addition, to suggest, as several have , that it is only states and never the Federal government who have denied rights is fallacious. Ask a survivor of the Japanese internment camps during WWII if the federal government can take away rights. I know I will get lambasted for this, but people of all walks of life, races, creeds, and yes political stances have the right to interpret the civil rights struggle to include their views. To suggest otherwise is to imply that only certain people or causes are included. That view in itself is inherently prejudicial. Something that the giants of the Civil Rights struggle would have adamantly opposed. Let's all just try to keep an open mind.

When I read The "Honorable"

Submitted by Victor Ivy Brown on 1 April 2013 - 3:44pm.

When I read The "Honorable" Mr. Crane's outrageous statements, of course I was disturbed that such a prominent individual could say something so dumb. Then I yawned and said "So, what else is new?" This is not the first time in the post-Obama election period that this has happened. Witness the stupid statemement uttered by The "Honorable" Rand Paul who was elected to a Senate seat from Kentucky in 2010. He stated in early 2011 that he believes that the Civil Rights Act Of 1964 is an intrusion on private property rights. I suggest that buffoons like these two clowns don't believe everything that comes out of their mouths. It seems that they are making a deliberate efort to distort history, in order to sway other[s] to follow their bigoted agenda. Of course we need to redouble our efforts to counter such agenda. I, for one, am doing my bit.

Unfortunately they do the

Submitted by ana villanueva on 14 April 2013 - 6:29am.

Unfortunately they do the same thing when teaching Plessy v Ferguson, it was also deliberate and planned.

I understand the frustration

Submitted by Kerri Hundley on 28 March 2013 - 4:59pm.

I understand the frustration it is to have history so misunderstood and misused. However, I believe something my mother taught me years ago. You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It seems that the best way to help this misguided senator is to kindly give him the facts. Perhaps the best way to help the great state of Idaho is to offer support and information rather than degrading their educational system. Shaming our brothers and sisters of color never succeeded in elevating their status. I'm not sure ridicule of ignorance in this instance is any less intolerant than ridiculing others because of ignorance or race was during that dark period of our national history. After all, isn't the whole point of this organization "Teaching Tolerance"? Perhaps a kinder, more helpful approach to change would serve better. Just a thought.

Excellent thought! Together,

Submitted by Beverley Stuart on 1 April 2013 - 12:30pm.

Excellent thought! Together, let us make it reality.

While it is not surprising

Submitted by Jeff Kaufman on 27 March 2013 - 3:10pm.

While it is not surprising that this Idaho legislator would manipulate the Rosa Parks story in this way (whether consciously or not) we need to go beyond just correcting the "tired old seamstress" narrative with why the Parks story was originally manipulated this way. As an educator I feel duty bound to have my students "discover" that the true power of the Rosa Parks story was her efforts to be arrested; not just the arrest on December 1, 1955 and understand her role in the planning of the bus boycott and the State NAACP. Also understanding Parks actions after the Women's Political Council and the arrests of Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith long before Parks helps empower my students in understanding just how great social movements begin and have traction. My students must answer why Parks final attempt to be arrested caused King to be involved and why King and others stayed away from Colvin and Smith. It is only with a complete examination of the political and social climate can we understand how change was effected and how we can bring change. Clearly the Idaho legislature needs a lesson or two.

I can not believe what I just

Submitted by Tobias A. Weissman on 27 March 2013 - 9:32am.

I can not believe what I just read. That a state legislator could comment on a well known fact of the civil rights movement. It is down right dangerous that a man of his background could run for the President of the USA and possibly win. If that could happen and might eventually happen. This country would be in a pickle if such ignorance wids up in the White House.

Thank you for this excellent

Submitted by Deborah Menkart on 27 March 2013 - 9:18am.

Thank you for this excellent article. What you describe sounds sadly similar to the situation in Tucson, Arizona where Attorney General Tom Horne used quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to defend the dismantling of the ethnic studies programs. As Rodolfo F. Acuña wrote, "Posing as the apostle of the Rev. King, he [Horne] claims to want to preserve the legacy of a “colorblind” Constitution by dismantling La Raza Studies." (Full article by Acuna here: Of course, it does not matter whether Horne or Crane know the true history. The reason they can get away with twisting the statements by Parks and King is that they know too many of us have a superficial and simplistic understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. If we understood the true history of the movement, they could not get away with those statements. Herbert Kohl wrote in Rethinking Schools about how the myth about Parks starts very young. His article, "The Politics of Children’s Literature: What’s Wrong with the Rosa Parks Myth" is highly recommended for discussion by teachers and includes recommended resources such as the book referenced below, "Rosa" by Nikki Giovanni. See article and more resources here:

I highly recommend the new

Submitted by Pat Kahn on 27 March 2013 - 8:43am.

I highly recommend the new book published by Beacon Press - The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

The definitive political biography of Rosa Parks examines her six decades of activism, challenging perceptions of her as an accidental actor in the civil rights movement.

When Rosa Parks died in October 2005, she became the first woman and second African American to lie in honor at the nation's capital. Yet much of the memorialization reduced her historical contribution to a single act on a bus on a long-ago December evening. In this revealing and comprehensive biography-the first critical treatment of Parks's life-historian Jeanne Theoharis shows that the standard portrayal of Rosa Parks as a quiet and demure accidental actor is far from true.

Presenting a powerful corrective to the popular iconography of Rosa Parks as the quiet seamstress who with a single act birthed the modern civil rights movement, Theoharis excavates Parks's political philosophy and six decades of political work to reveal a woman whose existence demonstrated-in her own words-a "life history of being rebellious." From her family's support of Marcus Garvey to her service with the NAACP in Alabama in the 1940s and 1950s, and from her courageous bus arrest and steadfast efforts on behalf of the Montgomery bus boycott to her work in Detroit challenging Northern racial inequality on behalf of a newly elected Congressman John Conyers and alongside Black Power advocates, Parks's contributions to the civil rights movement go far beyond a single day. Even as economic hardship and constant death threats exacted a steep toll on Rosa and her husband, Raymond, she remained committed to exposing and eradicating racial inequality in jobs, schools, public services, and the criminal justice system.

In The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Theoharis masterfully details the political depth of a national heroine who dedicated her life to fighting American inequality and, in the process, resurrects an inspiring civil rights movement radical who has been hidden in plain sight far too long.

Judy Fjell and I have written

Submitted by Nancy Schimmel on 26 March 2013 - 4:02pm.

Judy Fjell and I have written a song that includes her attending a civil rights workshop at Highlander School before she refused to give up her seat. nancy[at]

Nikki Giovanni's picture book

Submitted by Johanna Halbeisen on 26 March 2013 - 3:24pm.

Nikki Giovanni's picture book Rosa helped me in the classroom to convey the accurate story and the entire context of organizing (Women's Political Council) in which the act took place. So many song tributes to Rosa Parks get it wrong, making it sound like she was one tired woman acting alone. Giovanni's book helps to get the facts right at the elementary school level.

It was states rights

Submitted by Daniel Hancock on 26 March 2013 - 1:48pm.

It was states rights government not federal government that made her stand. It took federal laws to put an end to Jim Crowe

I teach my third graders that

Submitted by Jill Grissom on 26 March 2013 - 1:38pm.

I teach my third graders that Mrs. Parks was not tired from her job. I share a quote I heard was attributed to her, "Sometimes you just get tired of being kicked around." I'm not sure if the quote is accurate, but I know the sentiment behind it is. Her decision to take a stand was a deliberate one, brought on by the injustice of the system of Jim Crow laws that had been in place in the south for a hundred years. I teach in Virginia, a state with a sad history of prejudice. I'm working hard to help my students, who are the future of my state, learn from their legacy, so they can be the change they want to see in the future.

I've seen the quotation "I'm

Submitted by gael graham on 27 March 2013 - 4:33pm.

I've seen the quotation "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

I've seen the quotation "I'm

Submitted by Denise Valentine on 29 March 2013 - 9:04am.

I've seen the quotation "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."

This quote is attributed to another civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer.

I wonder if the Statesman

Submitted by Ruth Winters on 26 March 2013 - 11:38am.

I wonder if the Statesman from Idaho really believed what he was saying or if he was simply trying to manipulate his listeners. Likely, it is the former. Yet how could someone in his position be ignorant of the facts? I teach high school and any time Rosa Parks comes up I have to explain that what they learned about her in elementary school is a watered-down and untrue story. That "tired seamstress" was a respected, knowledgeable, and very active member of the fledgling civil rights efforts in her area. Our elementary-aged children are more than capable of understanding the basics of what was really going on at that time, and the true story is much more interesting! Talk about a great introduction to the issue of states' rights, which has been pivital through much of our history. For Mr. Crane to use her name without first learning the facts sounds like willful ignorance to me.

From The Writers' Almanac by

Submitted by Sharon Zink on 1 December 2013 - 2:35pm.

From The Writers' Almanac by Garrison Keillor:

On this date in 1955, Rosa Parks (books by this author) refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. The Montgomery bus segregation policy at that time dictated that the black and white sections were fluid based on need; whites were guaranteed at least the first four rows, but the boundary between the sections was wherever the dividing sign was at any given moment. If the bus was crowded with a lot of white passengers, the black section was pushed farther back toward the back of the bus. Sometimes the driver would eliminate the black section altogether; whenever this happened, the black passengers were forced to leave the bus and wait for another. Also, if there were white passengers in the front of the bus, black passengers weren't allowed to walk past them to take their seats; they could board the front of the bus to pay their fare, but then had to get off and board by the back entrance, and it wasn't uncommon for the bus to pull away before they had a chance to do so.

On this day, Parks, an African-American seamstress, sat down in the front row of the black section on her way home from work. All was well until the bus became more crowded with white passengers, and the driver moved the divider back; now Parks was seated in the white section. The driver demanded that she give up her seat to a white man, and she refused. She was tired from working all day, but she was also fed up; this had happened to her several times before. Years later, she recalled, "When that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night." She refused to give up her seat. "When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.' And he said, 'Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have to call the police and have you arrested.' I said, 'You may do that.'"

Parks' arrest was the catalyst that the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association needed to organize a boycott of the city's buses on December 5. A 26-year-old pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as the protest's leader; on the first night of the boycott he came forward and said, "The great glory of the American democracy is the right to protest for right." The boycott continued for over a year, and ultimately the United States Supreme Court ruled that the segregation policy was unconstitutional."

She was tired.

I do not toe the Democrat party line, and I am PROUD and DETERMINED to be politically incorrect.