I was recently asked to think about the last piece of Black history that I learned and what surprised me about it. The story of Rosa Parks immediately came to mind. I remember learning about Rosa Parks in elementary school. You know the story: she was coming home from work on the bus, she was told to move to the back, but her feet were tired from being at work all day, so she wouldn’t move. And she got arrested! But she brought the Civil Rights movement to Montgomery!
It was only recently that I learned Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired old lady who didn’t feel like moving to the back of the bus—although that description may be accurate. She was an activist. She wasn’t just one individual deciding on a random day to take a stand. She was part of a community resistance—of people taking a stand against Jim Crow law. I learned that a few months before the bus incident, she actually took off to work to attend a workshop on school desegregation. She went to meetings about leading and organizing social movements. She helped to form a youth chapter of the Montgomery NAACP, even though she felt that social justice in that city would be very difficult, and she wasn’t very hopeful about a mass resistance.
But a few months later, she sat down on that bus and became a symbol of standing up for injustice. And I don’t think it was just because she was tired and fed up.
I think it was because in the previous months, she had become connected to a community of activists. It feels hard to speak up when it’s your voice against the shout of the status quo. But if you feel connected to a community of like-minded people, there’s comfort and strength in those numbers. It’s easier to attend a meeting or a protest, to share an article online, or to put a sign in your yard if you know someone else who is doing the same.
I don’t know why the first story I learned makes Rosa Parks one individual against the world. Is she supposed to sound more heroic in that narrative?
For me, learning she was a community activist and a change-maker made me view her story differently. It made me think about her choice as deliberate rather than spontaneous. Her decision on that bus wasn’t about bunions or backache. It was a strong and energetic desire to see a different Montgomery. And she was able to make that decision because she had become part of a community of activists who shared and supported her vision for a better future.
We can’t all be Rosa Parks. But I think we (people who have benefited from the status quo, at the expense of others) owe it to her to bring her vision for social justice into better focus. It’s clear that her work is not yet done, and more of us (white people) are feeling called to do our part, but aren’t sure how to begin. I certainly didn’t know where to start.
We Stories gave me a place to start and a community of support. It began as a way to diversify my kids’ bookshelves and to get comfortable talking with them about race, differences, and injustice. It has become a community that believes in doing our part for racial equity, and in supporting those actively working for a better St. Louis. #thatswhywestories