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Young Rosa Parks

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This is a guest post by Rachel Gordon, Visitor Services Specialist at the Library. 

Rosa Parks, half-length portrait, circa 1950. Prints & Photographs Division

Rosa Parks. The name immediately brings to mind a woman who stood her ground, whose brave and principled refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus was a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement. On the 108th anniversary of Rosa Park’s birth, the courageous action she took and the events she precipitated remain as relevant and important as ever. There’s so much from her life story to learn and discuss – but how best to access it with children in a way that goes beyond the “lady on the bus” anecdote?

On December 1, 1955, the day of the incident on the bus, Rosa Parks was 42 years old. But what were her experiences before that? What shaped her? Her childhood provides a fascinating glimpse into how her family and upbringing formed a strong and committed activist who devoted herself to fighting against injustice for decades.

The Library’s exhibition Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words delves into Mrs. Parks’ s personal papers to document her life and activism and to give us a fuller and more intimate view of this remarkable woman.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama and grew up under the strict segregation and injustice of the Jim Crow South. Rosa, her mother Leona, and her younger brother Sylvester lived with their maternal grandparents in Pine Level, Alabama. Her parents separated when she was very young; she didn’t see her father, James McCauley, again until she was an adult.

Rosa’s grandparents, Sylvester and Rose Edwards, were instrumental in her upbringing and the development of her character and beliefs. Her grandfather’s harsh childhood, vividly described in her autobiography, was full of brutal treatment that marked him physically and psychologically. It left him with a fierce determination to fight injustice, and to stand up for his beliefs and self-respect in any way that he could – principles he passed on to young Rosa. She writes of waiting up with him when he stayed awake and armed, night after night, to protect his family from the rampaging Ku Klux Klan. She was six.

At age 10, Rosa picked up a piece of brick when a white boy threatened to hit her, causing him to back down. When her horrified grandmother scolded her for an action that could have had serious repercussions, Rosa was angry and upset. “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated”, she later recalled.

Families can read Rosa Parks’s story in her own words in the documents presented in the Library’s exhibition online and in the books My Story (Dial Books, 1992) and I am Rosa Parks (Dial Books for Young Readers, 1997), both written with Jim Haskins. You also can hear Rosa Parks describe her life and activism and hear portions of My Story read by former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson in this short video (see portion 0:00-01:58 but note that the subsequent portions describe violence that may not be suitable for young children).

Two more titles are particularly suited for very young readers (K-3):

  • Kaiser, Lisbeth. Rosa Parks (Little People, BIG DREAMS, 9). Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2017.
  • Jazynka, Kitson. National Geographic Readers: Rosa Parks. Publisher: National Geographic Kids, 2015.
A hand drawn image of Rosa Parks on a bus with "Happy Birthday" written behind her
Sarah N. Saker, Hastings Middle School, Columbus, Ohio, “Happy B-Day Mrs. Parks!,” ca. January 2000. Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Library’s exhibition focuses on Rosa Parks’s words and writings and includes the work of letterpress artist Amos Paul Kennedy, who used Rosa’s words to convey her determination and her moral, principled stance in a dramatic series of prints. They provide ideal inspiration for creating equally arresting, artwork about Rosa Parks – or any subject of your choice. More information about Kennedy’s work, quotes from Parks, and advice for how kids can use similar techniques is also included in the Library’s family activity kit, Remembering Rosa Parks.

Although Rosa and her husband Raymond Parks had no children of their own, children were a significant part of Rosa Parks’s life. She was a beloved aunt to her brother Sylvester’s thirteen children, and in 1987 Rosa Parks and her longtime friend Elaine Steele co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development. The goal of the institute was “to motivate and direct youth not targeted by other programs to achieve their highest potential.” Rosa Parks’s papers are also filled with cards from children, wishing her a happy birthday or thanking her for her activism. You can find examples and inspiration for creating similar cards here.

Rosa Parks grew up to become the “first lady of civil rights” and an iconic figure admired worldwide. How today’s younger generation face up to the challenges of the mid 2020s is still to be determined, but there couldn’t be a better role model than the indomitable Rosa Parks.

Comments (2)

  1. Do you do virtual presentations for high school students on Rosa Parks?

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