On the site of the old Empire Theater in Montgomery, Alabama, there lies a museum emblazoned with bronze regal characters that read “Rosa Parks Library and Museum”. The stone building juts out from Troy University’s campus and stands where Rosa Parks boarded a bus in 1955 and refused to move to the colored section. I had heard Mrs. Parks’ tale of resistance and her work as an activist many times throughout my life, especially from my mother when she would give Black History Month presentations at my elementary and middle school. She gave these presentations because my school did not celebrate Black History Month. She wanted to ensure that my classmates and I understood the contributions of Mrs. Parks and other civil rights leaders to American history by demanding that my school allow her to give Black history presentations. Prior to my mom demanding change, the only people who I studied in class and who looked like me were enslaved Africans during the slave trade section of our American history unit.
Rosa Parks is pictured here with sociologist Charles Henry Parrish and educator Frederick D. Patterson, at a desegregation seminar at Highlander Folk School in New Market, TN, in 1955. Credit: Highlander Research and Education Center. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.
My mother’s stand was about more than introducing Black History Month to my school. It was about creating a curriculum that acknowledged the humanity of black students by including their achievements and history beyond slavery. She believed that an integrated classroom did not mean an integrated education system. Inspired by Mrs. Parks’ life of activism, my mother actively resisted how white supremacy was impacting my education. Growing up, I had heard of and witnessed how small acts of resistance led to systematic change such as desegregating bus systems and education reform, both of which sought to humanize people of color.
The feeling of pride was an understatement as I passed through the doors of the building erected in honor of the contribution of a black woman to the struggle for freedom rights. Mrs. Park’s narrative was no longer just a presentation from my mother but a museum dedicated to telling her story. Upon entering the museum, I was surrounded by darkness and three large monitors. An image of Rosa Parks flashed across the screen and a narrator’s voice began describing her early life. The narrator stated how she became politically active prior to her famous act of resistance. Her history of activism began in the 1940s when she became an investigator and secretary for the Montgomery branch of the NAACP. She became a seasoned activist through her work documenting an epidemic of sexual violence against black women.
I closed my eyes and I could see my mother standing before my class and then instead of hearing the narrator’s voice, I heard my mother’s voice narrating Mrs. Parks’ life. I was jolted awake from the sound of the theater doors opening. As I entered the next room of the exhibit, I was transported to December 1, 1955. The walls of the room were covered with a cartoonish backdrop and a life-sized bus attempting to recreate the streetscape around Cleveland Avenue, where Mrs. Parks entered the bus. As the narrator continued, the story became less and less familiar. The strong and outspoken investigator that I heard about in the theater had been reduced to a tired seamstress with no reason to resist other than exhaustion.
Ms. Colvin around 1953. Credit: The Montgomery Advertiser, via Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Mrs. Parks did not get tired. She got organized. She was not the first to get organized. The narration ended with, “Next, she called her black activist friend to bail her out of jail after the bus driver had her arrested.” Where was the story of the women who came before Mrs. Parks and refused to give up their seats on that same bus system, like Claudette Colvin? Why didn’t the museum discuss the factors that went into the NAACP selecting Mrs. Parks including her lighter skin complexion, which I believe is a part of the legacy of slavery and a reflection of white supremacy? Where was the story about how much planning went into that act of resistance? Who was that “black activist friend”? That black activist friend could have been from a number of civil rights organizations given how given how politically active Mrs. Parks was as shown in the film from the previous part of the exhibit. I was floored at the incongruence of representation. Why was the complexity of this narrative reduced to a digestible history?
Her story of becoming politicized and being selected to resist the segregated bus system is incredibly complex and challenges America’s obsession with everyday heroes and brief glimpses of glory that American history textbooks too often reinforce. My excitement to see a museum dedicated to the story of a woman who I identified with turned into frustration. The heavy work of resistance begins with acknowledging those who have come before us and preparing those who will come after us. It means intertwining your liberation with both of those groups. Rosa Parks must be remembered for her struggle for liberation instead of a straight narrative like the museum’s exhibit described.
Her story is about the work and planning required to create a bus boycott and how it began before December 1, 1955. Her story forces us to grapple with the harsh reality of colorism and patriarchy within civil rights organizations while celebrating her courageous stand. Additionally, her story of success was possible because of many unsuccessful years. Although I do not have answers for all of the questions that raced through my mind while standing in the Rosa Parks Museum, the lessons that I collected from my mother and Mrs. Parks have inspired me to continue the work of resistance through small acts. When I see myself, I see my mom. When I see myself, I see Rosa Parks. When I see myself, I see all those who came before them because they taught me that by looking behind me, I can see how I move forward.