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Constructing a Narrative with Students about Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks from Her Notes

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In the January/February 2017 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features items from the Rosa Parks Collection. The Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress contains thousands of unique artifacts that shed light on this courageous fighter for social justice. The letters, diaries, notes, photographs, and other documents in this collection, which is on loan for ten years from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, provide invaluable insights into her life and thoughts. The collection also provides a chance to become more familiar with Parks’ own activist work, offering an intimate glimpse into her thoughts and experiences. Reading the notes that she jotted for herself reveals the sacrifice and struggle of the person who became an icon of a movement.

The article also features a sidebar focusing on Meg McAleer, senior archives specialist in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. She noted that these personal papers arrived poorly organized, and putting the objects into a logical order was necessary to release the collection’s narrative voice. She describes the papers as “fragmentary rather than comprehensive but very revealing about the private person who also played prominent public roles.” She compares the process to piecing together a puzzle, noting that while individual pieces are interesting, a more complete picture emerges when the pieces come together.

Image 7 of Rosa Parks Papers: Writings, Notes, and Statements, 1956-1998

Image 8 of Rosa Parks Papers: Writings, Notes, and Statements, 1956-1998

The article takes a close look at one intriguing object, a program from an event at which Parks spoke, with hand-written notes on the back. Studying this object can give students the experience of piecing together a puzzle. The program raises many questions, but at the same time offers insight into what Parks might have been thinking about. For example, the program is labeled “Springfield Branch/National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” but it does not indicate which “Springfield” hosted the event. The article outlines ways to work from clues in the program to research the most likely possibility.  The hand-written notes on the back of the program offer additional puzzles to research and piece together, including a reference to “Today’s Supreme Court decision,” and clues suggest that the case in question was Gayle v. Browder, which affirmed a lower court ruling that segregation on buses was unconstitutional.

Finally, the article also suggests approaches to research and learn more about antecedent legislation to that decision, and points to related resources for learning more about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other events of the struggle for full civil rights.

If you showed this item to your students, what observations and questions did they have?


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