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The Politics of Children’s Literature: What’s Wrong with the Rosa Parks Myth


The Politics of Children’s Literature: What’s Wrong with the Rosa Parks Myth

Herber Kohl

Issues of racism and direct confrontation between African American and European American people in the United States are usually considered too sensitive to be dealt with directly in the elementary school classroom. When African Americans and European Americans are involved in confrontation in children’s texts, the situation is routinely described as a problem between individuals that can be worked out on a personal basis. In the few cases where racism is addressed as a social problem, there has to be a happy ending.


There something larger at play and that is a characteristic of the myth making in the USA.

The Rosa parks Story and the Martin Luther King story and all of those others are reshaped and retold to make the myth about "The Greatness of America" rather then about its many faults. They are told in such a way as to make it appear that only in the USA could such persons help initiate such social changes because only in the USA are people free and only there do they have liberty. This very much like those Hollywod movies where the hero prevails against corruption in Government because in that Government it only a few bad apples that are corrupt and the rest of that same Government want and desire to see justice done and simply not aware of the wrongdoings. The hero wins and those honest people in Government and its Justice system send the bad guys to jail.

This becomes pablum for the masses who grow up believing that the USA unique among nations in that its system of Governance will always set things right .

The Rosa parks and the Martin Luther Kings of the world are then , through no fault of their own, turned into tools for the oligarchs who will use them as symbols of "the greatness of Americans and Americans" while entrenching their own power and racism into the system.

This simply put is more of that inverted totalitarianism.


The following annotations on the previous summary ..

Pity CD chose not to reproduce the entire article here .. or was it a mistake?


There is also another aspect that is often left out of the story. Rosa Parks was not tired !

Rosa Parks was a very courageous person who offered to do what she did to help Martin Luther King.

It is an oft repeated misrepresentation of this incredibly brave woman who did what she did all alone.

The tale is told not of a heroic civil rights activist but of a feisty (if tired) person who had acted spontaneously.

Rosa Parks was not tired... She was brave.
She was an activist .
She really was a hero.
That should be acknowledged.


Took a bit of a search but i found, at the Zinn Education Project. It's odd because this article by Herbert Kohl (not Herber) is from several years ago. Anyway, you can follow the link or read below.

Correcting the Myth
1) Rosa Parks was a poor, tired seamstress. She lived in Montgomery, Ala., during the 1950s.

Rosa Parks was one of the first women in Montgomery to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and was its secretary for years. At the NAACP she worked with chapter president E.D. Nixon, who was also vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Parks learned about union struggles from him. She also worked with the youth division of the NAACP, and she took a youth NAACP group to visit the Freedom Train when it came to Montgomery in 1954. The train, which carried the originals of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, was traveling around the United States promoting the virtues of democracy. Since its visit was a federal project, access to the exhibits could not be segregated. Parks took advantage of that fact to visit the train. There, she and the members of the youth group mingled freely with European Americans who were also looking at the documents. This overt act of crossing the boundaries of segregation did not endear Parks to the Montgomery political and social establishment.

Parks’ work as a seamstress in a large department store was secondary to her community work. In addition, as she says in an interview in My Soul Is Rested, she had almost a life history of “being rebellious against being mistreated because of my color.” She was well known to African American leaders in Montgomery for her opposition to segregation, her leadership abilities, and her moral strength. Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, she had been working to desegregate the Montgomery schools. She had also attended an interracial meeting at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee a few months before the boycott. Highlander was known throughout the South as a radical education center that was overtly planning for the total desegregation of the South. At that meeting, which dealt with plans for school desegregation, Parks indicated that she intended to participate in other attempts to break down the barriers of segregation. To call Rosa Parks a poor tired seamstress and not talk about her role as a community leader 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 and an insult to Parks as well.

2) In those days there was still segregation in parts of the United States. That meant that African Americans and European Americans were not allowed to use the same public facilities.

The existence of legalized segregation in the South during the 1950s is integral to the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, yet it is an embarrassment to many school people and difficult to explain to children without accounting for the moral corruption of the majority of the European American community in the South. Locating segregation in the past is a way of avoiding dealing with its current manifestations and implying that racism is no longer a major problem. Describing segregation passively (“There was still segregation” instead of “European Americans segregated facilities so that African Americans couldn’t use them”) also ignores the issue of legalized segregation, even though Parks was arrested for a violation of the Alabama law that required segregation in public facilities. It doesn’t talk overtly about racism. And it refers to “parts” of the United States, softening the tone and muddying the reference to the South. I’ve raised the question of how to expose children to the reality of segregation and racism to a number of educators, both African American and European American. Most of the European American and a few of the African American educators felt that young children do not need to be exposed to the violent history of segregation. They worried about the effects such exposure would have on race relations in their classrooms and especially about provoking rage on the part of African American students. The other educators felt that, given the resurgence of overt racism in the United States, allowing rage and anger to come out was the only way African American and European American children could work toward a common life. They felt that conflict was a positive thing that could be healing when confronted directly and that avoiding the horrors of racism was just another way of perpetuating them. I agree with this second group.

3) Whenever the city buses were crowded, African Americans had to give up seats in front to European Americans and move to the back of the bus.

Actually, African Americans were never allowed to sit in the front of the bus in the South in those days. The front seats were reserved for European Americans. Between five and ten rows back, the “colored” section began. When the front filled up, African Americans seated in the “colored” section had to give up their seats and move toward the back of the bus. Thus, for example, an elderly African American would have to give up his or her seat to a European American teenager at the peril of being arrested.

4) One day on her way home from work Rosa was tired and sat down in the front of the bus.

Parks did not sit in the front of the bus. She sat in the front row of the “colored” section. When the bus got crowded she refused to give up her seat in the “colored” section to a European American. It is important to point this out as it indicates quite clearly that it was not her intent, initially, to break he segregation laws. At this point the story lapses into the familiar and refers to Rosa Parks as “Rosa.” The question of whether to use the first name for historical characters in a factual story is complicated. One argument is that young children will more readily identify with characters presented in a personalized and familiar way. However, given that it was a sanctioned social practice in the South during the time of the story for European Americans to call African American adults by their first names as a way of reinforcing the African Americans’ inferior status (African Americans could never call European Americans by their first names without breaking the social code of segregation), it seems unwise to use that practice in the story. In addition, it’s reasonable to assume that Parks was not any more tired on that one day than on other days. She worked at an exhausting full-time job and was also active full time in the community. To emphasize her being tired is another way of saying that her defiance was an accidental result of her fatigue and consequent short temper. Rage, however, is not a one-day thing, and Parks acted with full knowledge of what she was doing.

5) As the bus got crowded she was asked to give up her seat to a European American man, and she refused. The bus driver told her she had to go to the back of the bus, and she still refused to move. It was a hot day, she was tired and angry, and she became very stubborn. The driver called a policeman who arrested Rosa.

This is the way that Parks, in her book My Soul Is Rested, described her experiences with buses:

I had problems with bus drivers over the years because I didn’t see fit to pay my money into the front and then go to the back. Sometimes bus drivers wouldn’t permit me to get on the bus, and I had been evicted from the bus. But, as I say, there had been incidents over the years. One of the things that made this [incident] ... get so much publicity was the fact that the police were called in and I was placed under arrest. See, if I had just been evicted from the bus and he hadn’t placed me under arrest or had any charges brought against me, it probably could have been just another incident.

In the book Voices of Freedom by Henry Hampton and Steve Fayer, Parks describes that day in the following way:

On Dec. 1, 1955, I had finished my day’s work as a tailor’s assistant in the Montgomery Fair Department Store and I was on my way home. There was one vacant seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus, which I took, alongside a man and two women across the aisle. There were still a few vacant seats in the white section in the front, of course. We went to the next stop without being disturbed. On the third, the front seats were occupied and this one man, a white man, was standing. The driver asked us to stand up and let him have those seats, and when none of us moved at his first words, he said, “You all make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” And the man who was sitting next to the window stood up, and I made room for him to pass by me. The two women across the aisle stood up and moved out. When the driver 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 call the police and have you arrested.” I said, “You may do that.” He did get off the bus, and I still stayed where I was. Two policemen came on the bus. One of the policemen asked me if the bus driver had asked me to stand and I said yes. He said, “Why don’t you stand up?” And I asked him, “Why do you push us around?” He said, “I do not know, but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”

Mere anger and stubbornness could not account for the clear resolve with which Parks acted. She knew what she was doing, understood the consequences, and was prepared to confront segregation head-on at whatever sacrifice she had to make.

6) When other African Americans in Montgomery heard this, they became angry too, so they decided to refuse to ride the buses until everyone was allowed to ride together. They boycotted the buses.

The connection between Parks’ arrest and the boycott is a mystery in most accounts of what happened in Montgomery. Community support for the boycott is portrayed as being instantaneous and miraculously effective the very day after Parks was arrested. Things don’t happen that way, and it is an insult to the intelligence and courage of the African American community in Montgomery to turn their planned resistance to segregation into a spontaneous emotional response.

The actual situation was more interesting and complex. Not only had Parks defied the bus segregation laws in the past, according to E.D. Nixon, in the three months preceding her arrest at least three other African American people had been arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up their bus seats to European American people. In each case, Nixon and other people in leadership positions in the African American community in Montgomery investigated the background of the person arrested. They were looking for someone who had the respect of the community and the strength to deal with the racist police force as well as all of the publicity that would result from being at the center of a court challenge.

This leads to the most important point left out in popularized accounts of the Montgomery bus boycott. Community leaders had long considered a boycott as a tactic to achieve racial justice. Of particular importance in this discussion was an African American women’s organization in Montgomery called the Women’s Political Council (WPC). It was headed by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State University in Montgomery, an African American university. In 1949, Gibson was put off a bus in Montgomery for refusing to move to the back of an almost empty bus. She and other women resolved to do something about bus segregation. The boycott was an event waiting to take place, and that is why it could be mobilized over a single weekend. Parks’ arrest brought it about because she was part of the African American leadership in Montgomery and was trusted not to cave in under the pressure everyone knew she would be exposed to, not the least of which would be threats to her life. This story of collective decision-making, willed risk, and coordinated action is more dramatic than the story of an angry individual who sparked a demonstration; it is one that has more to teach children who themselves may one day have to organize and act collectively against oppressive forces.

7) The boycott, which was led by Martin Luther King Jr., succeeded. Now African Americans and European Americans can ride the buses together in Montgomery. Rosa Parks was a very brave person.

The boycott was planned by the WPC, E.D. Nixon and others in Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. was a new member of the community. He had just taken over the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and when Nixon told him that Parks’ arrest was just what everybody was waiting for to kick off a bus boycott and assault the institution of segregation, King was at first reluctant. However, the community people chose him to lead, and he accepted their call. The boycott lasted 381 inconvenient days, something not usually mentioned in children’s books. It did succeed and was one of the events that sparked the entire Civil Rights Movement. People who had been planning an overt attack on segregation for years took that victory as a sign that the time was ripe even though the people involved in the Montgomery boycott did not themselves anticipate such a result.

Concluding Thoughts
What remains then, is to re-title the story. The revised version is still about Rosa Parks, but it is also about the African American people of Montgomery, Ala. It takes the usual, individualized version of the Rosa Parks tale and puts it in the context of a coherent, community-based social struggle. This does not diminish Parks in any way. It places her, however, in the midst of a consciously planned movement for social change, and reminds me of the freedom song “We Shall Not Be Moved,” for it was precisely Parks’ and the community’s refusal to be moved that made the boycott possible. When the story of the Montgomery bus boycott is told merely as a tale of a single heroic person, it leaves children hanging. Not everyone is a hero or heroine. Of course, the idea that only special people can create change is useful if you want to prevent mass movements and keep change from happening.

Not every child can be a Rosa Parks, but everyone can imagine herself or himself as a participant in the boycott. As a tale of a social movement and a community effort to overthrow injustice, the Rosa Parks story opens the possibility of every child identifying herself or himself as an activist, as someone who can help make justice happen.



It was 60 years ago today - Dec, 1, 1955 - that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man in the colored section of a Montgomery Alabama public transit bus. Hence the Rosa Parks articles.

From The Nation:
Rosa Parks Wasn’t Meek, Passive, or Naive—and 7 Other Things You Probably Didn’t Learn in School


I agree with Kohl that efforts to continue the push for social justice are not helped by mythology which presents advances in social justice as resulting from the remarkable success of extraordinary heroes.

Resistance to injustice goes way back.

In addition to famous activists, many people who are unknown, and will never be known, played significant roles in bringing about the advances of the Civil Rights movement. It is too easy for people to get the sense that they should not try to work for social justice because, they are not 'heroes' or because they are likely to fail. The fact is that the cause of social justice is advanced by people taking action to promote change, even when, taken in isolation, these individual acts are not immediately successful.


Thanks back. There's more background in the Nation article you linked than in the Kohl article above. i appreciate details about how she always supported the right to self-defense, was a lifelong supporter of Malcolm X, participated in two Black Power conferences, and visited the Black Panther Party school in Oakland. Not your "tired seamstress" Rosa Parks.


My point has less to do with Rosa Parks and others in their long hard strikes to force Social change as much as it about those in power trying to make it about how the system "works" to allow that change. The success of a Rosa Parks and those others in Social movements had much more to do with they were GOOD people having a desire for Social justice (which is an element of peoples the World over) and little to do with the system being a "good" system in allowing it .

The system remains corrupt and the struggle against it never ending.


More than that, E.D.Nixon, mentioned so briefly in that revision, was actually the linchpin of the civil-rights movement in the Montgomery area. He and Prof. Robinson between them kept the pot well-stirred. But once Nixon selected Martin and Rosa for the key roles in the pre-boycott morality play, he was pushed aside and essentially made a non-person, something he resented til the day he died.

Another person who gets short shrift is Claudette Colvin, who, in a completely unscripted move made off her own bat, refused to give up her seat and was arrested, tried, and convicted of violating the segregation laws. She was 15 when she did it, 9 months before Rosa's dog-and-pony show. Nixon and Prof. Robinson considered using her spontaneous bravery to power the boycott, but decided that an uppity teenager might not appeal to the White folk they needed to bring on board.

Another woman almost forgotten today is the late Irene Morgan, who in 1944 refused to give up her seat on an interstate bus, leading via William Hastie and Thurgood Marshall to the 1946 Supreme Court ruling that state segregation laws were unconstitutional when applied to interstate traffic.


The Nation article that MM23 linked goes into some detail about Claudette Colvin.


They also are always about "brave" or "smart" individuals and never about mass collective action. Collective action, God forbid, sound's like socialism!!!

And even Rosa Park's December 1, 1955 action was not the action of an individual, nor spontaneous. A civil-disobedient action regarding the buses had been planned for that date weeks earlier, and Ms. Parks ended up being the volunteer to be selected by her fellow activist-organizers to do it.

And excuse the digression, I find it pretty amazing that bus service was so important to everyone in those days white and black, that the boycott could be so effective in Montgomery back in 1955. Today, in big-strip and shopping mall clogged Montgomery, there are no buses to take a seat in at all! If you are poor and don't have a car you are screwed.

We sure could use going back to those far lower-carbon-emitting times. It will be a long fight. My city's transit syatem, serving a population of 1.2 million is actually prohibited from adding new public transit service by an act of the right-wing State General Assembly in Harrisburg. Buses, especially when the drivers are Union, are socialism too.


Yes and well observed. It key that such movements be made to look like the work of individuals in a society in which the Government holds the concept of Community with total contempt.


The problem is what is left out. The bus driver had to do his job or he would have lost his job. She had no sympathy for his problems forcing him to do what he did. Both were victims. She of him and him of her. Both about the system.


Right now is the wrong time to be reposting Kohl's article. While it is truthful on many levels, "activism" is not what is most needed at the moment but a tremendous depth of heart that works to heal this country.

There is intentional work being done to pit Americans against each other to be able to more easily tear apart the social fabric and leave people less able to work together to hold together the safety net for everyone. Ferguson chaos was staged by the Soros Foundation that paid for violent demonstrators, just as he's done in country after country the US sought to take control over. The police have been militarized and are murdering not just blacks but people of all races. This is a time to bring people together, not push activism in the name of identity politics.

John Hagelin, a nuclear physicist and a man who ran for President on a Peace ticket, proved scientifically during the Israeli Lebanese war that focused consciousness by a small number of people is capable of stopping deaths and violence. The experiment has been repeated with equal success many times since. Hagelin says that united consciousness is a million times stronger than the nuclear force.

So, why is Common Dreams bringing up Rosa Parks to push activism on behalf of blacks and not quoting MLK on our all being together and stopping hating? Why are progressives not aware of or ignoring a range of work showing we have power to change things through love, and instead constantly promoting division by identity? No person should be shot by the police, no person should be treated as less than another, no person should allow themselves to be pulled into hating as progressives have been willing to be. Attack the Koch name and see how quickly this happens.

A rewrite of the Rosa Parks' story should be about loving more and changing reality for us all.

The question is why is Common Dreams, seemingly innocently, pushing "activism" in the name of black versus white, especially right now? Why this Herbert Kohl article right now if not to stir up yet more discord? Why is Common Dreams not posting means to actually change the world, such as work by David Lynch and John Hagelin? Go to World Peace From the Quantum Level, David Lynch and John Hagelin.

See the power you've been missing while even "progressive" media has you mired in divisions of every kind - climate doomers/climate questioners, Sanders/Clinon, black/white, abortion/anti-abortion, gun rights/gun taking, religious/non-religious, immigration/anti-immigration, 9/11 truther/9/11 deniers, etc. We want the same good world. We have a mean to achieve it. Why are we mud-slinging instead, and feeling self-righteous as we do?

We have tremendous power. It's time to start using it to make this world what we loving human beings (and that is most of us) desire. Read "Going Beyond Gandhi's Non-violent Resistance to Quantum Joy and Changing Reality" (Common Dreams won't let new posters use links or it would be linked for you). We don't need to join protests (which, in any case, are being planted by the likes of Soros and government agencies with agent provocateurs to cause violence and disrupt any impression of Gandhi's non-violent resistance). The reality is we can instantly unite no matter how scattered we are and have an impact from our homes. The drive to push us toward "activism" and hitting the streets for confrontations plays into the hands of those seeking martial law and the removal of everyone's rights, who are quite ready to kill and bring yet more pain and anger.

Our human power can also be used to affect the Paris climate talks and the TPP, to prevent the corporations who control both, from achieving the massive power they want.

When you are encouraged to be angry, to think in terms of one group versus another rather than of everyone. ask yourself who is doing that and why?

We can change the world together and we can do it through the power of our consciousness - that's the blatant evidence from nuclear and quantum physics. Stop all anger and division and start concentrating on unified consciousness so we can do what needs doing - heal our world of hatred and war and corporate power and its devastation. Do a search for "Ebolagate" and "Quantum Joy" and see what you missed about yourself and the stunning power you have, especially when united with others.

The Rosa Parks article is being used to create anger and division. Notice, but then avoid, any attempts to pull you in that direction. Instead, read about what you can do in the peace and quiet of your own home, using love.


The story should be about the countless and unsung Americans who have cared and done a great deal. The story we should focus on without fail is on the wonderful people here, the millions who are friends with blacks, who honor Native Americans, who help the homeless themselves, who are routinely good to strangers, who refuse to hate anyone. The more we see the good in us and are connected to each other, the less power the oligarchs have. Hating the oligarchs, hating anyone, gives them what they want - division and frustrated helplessness.

Fear, fear, fear. Hatred, hatred, hatred.

This is an incredible county, filled with people of every color and religious and ethnic background who are helping others all the time, including total strangers. We're all being panned. Stop reading terrible corporate media stories and go outside and meet your neighbors, do something kind to someone you don't know, make a loving call to your family which you've been encouraged to disparage. Stop judging everything and everyone every minute, and just quietly go be kind in the present moment. Donate personally. Open your home to someone in need. Plant one little plant. Listen to the birds. Be grateful to the trees. Bring peace and goodness to where you are.

Feel how it feels inside you to swap living constantly affected by urgent, doom-filled global media and fearing and hating and given useless choices of clicking or protesting, for being peaceful and acting quietly near you in loving ways.


You need to look further up the chain. It isn't government that holds community in contempt, it is the capitalists which government caves in to.


Lots of interesting and valid comments below, or above, depending. The gravamen of much of what has been said, in the article and in the comments makes good sense and we ought to be making our history more of a road map for good citizenry than passively looking for or waiting for a hero to save up. Yep, no doubt about it.

It's just that in our current system/society there are so few female heroes, that to use one of those few as the model to try to strike down the mold, rather than one of the multitude of male heroic models, somehow just doesn't sit well from my perspective. By all means, let's knock down false hero worship but is Rosa Parks really the right subject/object for this attempt, especially coming from a white male?


I won't quibble with yours or Wikipedia's reference to the connection between MLK and Ms. Parks but in a cinematic biography of MLK they related that Parks and King had met as part of the activist community prior to the bus incident. At one of those meetings Parks volunteered herself.


Cite please?

Cites, please?