Unlearning False Histories: A Rosa Parks Resource List for the Anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white bus passenger. Her arrest sparked a 381–day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. Dr. Duchess Harris provides a resource list to mark the anniversary of this historic event and dispel common narratives about Parks.

When Rosa Parks passed away over 15 years ago, many well-known politicians spoke of her legacy at her funeral in Detroit, including then Sen. Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. A common theme throughout all of the speeches was one that all too many people are taught, unquestioned—Parks was a quiet, tired woman whose refusal to give up her seat sparked a bus boycott that lasted for just over a year. This narrative diminishes the highly impactful role Parks played in the civil rights movement, as she organized and fought for justice both long before and after the Montgomery bus boycott.

In an effort to challenge this, I have compiled a list of eye-opening books and videos that will allow readers to begin the arduous process of unlearning false histories they have likely internalized, and learn of the crucial role that Black women have played in U.S. politics.

 

Books

Children's and Young Adult

Rosa by Nikki Giovanni. illus. by Bryan Collier. Square Fish. ISBN 9780312376024.
Gr 3-5—In this brief yet compelling work, renowned poet, activist, and scholar Giovanni collaborated with artist Collier to produce a vivid account of Parks’s involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott, challenging simplistic narratives of this monumental event. Giovanni’s work is perfect for anyone looking for powerful images to illuminate a familiar history.

 

Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks with James Haskins. Penguin/Puffin. ISBN 9780141301204.
Gr 3-7—In her short yet poignant autobiography, Parks provides compelling insight into her childhood and her early work as a civil rights advocate with the NAACP. Parks details her iconic role in the Montgomery bus boycott and reflects on her life after becoming a nationally renowned symbol for civil rights.

 

Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today's Youth by Rosa Parks and Gregory J. Reed. Lee & Low. ISBN 9781880000458.
Gr 5 Up—Throughout her life, Parks received countless letters from people around the country, specifically children. In this inspiring collection of essays, Parks responds to the questions of young people writing to her for guidance. This scripted dialogue is the perfect way to teach young children about the civil rights movement, and it’s a moving read for people of all ages.

 

Boycott Blues: How Rosa Parks Inspired a Nation by Andrea Davis Pinkney. illus. by Brian Pinkney. HarperCollins/Greenwillow. ISBN 9780060821180.
Gr 3-6—This illustrated nonfiction book masterfully combines poetic text with a digestible amount of information to tell the story of Parks and the history of the Montgomery bus boycott. The emphasis on the latter provides ample context for young readers to develop baseline knowledge of the pivotal moment. The emotion is palpable, resulting in an enjoyable read and an excellent introduction to Parks.

 

Adult

Sisters in the Struggle: African-American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement by Bettye Collier-Thomas. NYU. ISBN 9780814716038.
Collier-Thomas’s work contextualizes the work of Parks in the civil rights movement. The book covers the larger scope of Black women in the civil rights movement, including Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer. Readers learn about the involvement of Black women in U.S. politics—both before and after the modern civil rights movement. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the confluence of gender, race, and politics in the U.S.

 

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 by Danielle L. McGuire. Random/Vintage. ISBN 9780307389244.
In this sobering and important resource, McGuire unpacks the lesser-known history of Parks as a legal advocate and sexual assault investigator, the stories of Recy Taylor, and other Black women’s legal battles for bodily autonomy. Parks’s work in the Montgomery bus boycott is contextualized within her overarching commitment to antiracism and women’s rights. McGuire points to the fight against sexual violence and interracial rape of Black women as the “battleground upon which African Americans sought to destroy white supremacy” and the beginnings of what we now call the civil rights movement, arguing that Black women have always been at the center of the struggle for racial justice.

 

Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies by Dick Gregory. HarperCollins/Amistad. ISBN 9780062448712.
This collection of essays penned by comedian and activist Gregory walks readers through key moments in social justice, civil rights, and anti-war movements. Gregory, who was a friend and comrade of key figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers, uses his skills as a storyteller to examine the truths behind pivotal, yet often overlooked moments in U.S. history.

 

 The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis. Beacon. ISBN 9780807076927.
Theoharis’s book illuminates the true history of Parks. The text offers a thorough examination of her writings and work in an attempt to correct the dangerous misconception of Parks as a “quiet” figure who merely operated in the background. Parks was, by all accounts, a powerful leader in the civil rights movement, driven by her own philosophy of resistance—cultivated from her lived experiences as a Black woman in combination with various pieces of political thought, particularly from Sylvester Edwards (who was influenced by Marcus Garvey). A longtime activist, Parks worked tirelessly in Montgomery prior to the bus boycott of 1955 as the Montgomery NAACP’s secretary, closely collaborating with activist E.D. Nixon.

Offering a compelling account of her efforts in Detroit after she left Alabama in 1957, Parks was heavily influenced by and involved with the Black Power movement. She took part in both anti-war and youth empowerment movements and worked for the late Rep. John Conyers Jr. for over 20 years. This must-read title is for anyone who is interested in Black politics in the United States and those who want to understand how Black women impacted U.S. politics. This resource offers a solid starting point. The YA edition of this title, adapted by Brandy Colbert, is set to publish in February 2021.

 

Videos

Rosa Parks: Beyond the Bus. Library of Congress 2015. 
Three former associates of Parks, Anita Peek, Ella McHall Haygan, and Elaine Steel, provide valuable insight into the life and legacy of Parks, particularly her work fighting for justice after the Montgomery bus boycott. The three women dispel common myths about Parks’s life and discuss the key moments that shaped her legacy as a lifelong advocate for justice.

Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words. Library of Congress 2020. 
This hour-long talk covers the Rosa Parks Collection, an extensive 140-year history of the Parks family, including communications and eye-opening writings of the seminal activist. In order to develop an understanding of who Parks was as an activist, it is important to understand how her upbringing was political, and how her family and those around her shaped her political ideologies. Adrienne Cannon, Valerie Kinloch, Andrea Lewis, and Stacie Moats work to build context around Parks’s manuscripts and personal photographs and delve further into her work in both Alabama and Michigan. The result is a powerful visual accompaniment to Theoharis’s text.


Photo by Anna Min

Dr. Harris is a professor of American Studies and Political Science at Macalester College and curator of the Duchess Harris Collection of ABDO books. She is also the coauthor of the collection, which features popular titles such as Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA and series including Freedom’s Promise and Race and American Law. In addition, Dr. Harris hosts the Freedom’s Promise podcast with her son. She has earned a BA in History from the University of Pennsylvania, a PhD in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, and a JD from William Mitchell College of Law.

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