Using the Rosa Parks Collection to Foster Student Inquiry of Parks’ Depictions in Civil Rights Narratives, Part 1

This post is courtesy of Katherine A. Perrotta, Part-Time Assistant Professor of History, Kennesaw State University, as an extension of an earlier article, Constructing a Narrative with Students about Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks from Her Notes. Watch this space for a second post, further extending the teaching ideas.

Rosa Parks Papers: Events, 1951-2005; Featuring or honoring Parks; 1956-1959

Rosa Parks’ arrest and the resulting Montgomery Bus Boycott have been a hallmark of civil rights narratives. However, some narratives do not depict Parks’ involvement in civil rights activism before and after her arrest, reducing her role in segregation resistance to one event. The Rosa Parks Papers at the Library of Congress can promote student inquiry into the complexities of Parks’ life and activism and engage students in analysis about her life and civil rights activism to support or refute popular depictions of Parks in civil rights narratives.

To activate students’ prior knowledge about Rosa Parks and situate her activism in the continuum of civil rights history beyond her 1955 arrest, ask students to brainstorm a list of what they know and what they would like to learn about Parks. Follow-up questions might include:

  • What are some examples of people and events associated with the mid-20th century Civil Rights Movement?
  • How do you think Rosa Parks was influenced by these people and events of the movement, and vice versa?

Record the ideas in a K-W-L chart, if desired.

Give groups of students examples of social studies textbooks and trade books that depict Parks and ask them to examine them to assess how Parks is portrayed. Students can work individually or in small groups to record evidence of these representations in their notes.

After the secondary source analysis is complete, teachers can direct students to documents selected from Rosa Parks: A Primary Source Gallery or from the Rosa Parks Papers to further research Parks’ civil rights activism before, during, and after her arrest. Students can work individually or in small groups to record information that can support or refute representations of Parks from the secondary sources in their notes.

For instance, students can read about the persistent threats of racial violence Parks witnessed as a child in Alabama.  Parks recalled:

[The] KKK moved through the country where we lived burning churches, schools, flogging, and killing. Grandfather stayed up to wait for them to come into our house. He kept his shotgun within reach at all times…The doors and windows were boarded and nailed tight from the inside.

Rosa Parks Papers, Accounts of her Arrest, Folder 2

Students can evaluate whether this childhood experience might have affected Parks’ decisions to resist segregation ordinances on the Montgomery bus when she was an adult in 1955.

Among the most powerful sources students can analyze in this collection include Parks’ reflections on her arrest.  For instance, Parks wrote:

I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I could not take it anymore. When I asked the policeman why we had to be pushed around?  He said he didn’t know. “The law is the law. You are under arrest.” I did not resist.

Students might look up Chapter 6, Section 10 of the Montgomery City Code to provide context for reading Parks’ recollections of her arrest. Ask them to consider why Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white patron on the Montgomery bus.

The next post in this series will look more closely at Rosa Parks’ reflections and activism in the years following her Montgomery bus arrest.



Information Literacy: How Does the News Change Over Time? The Sinking of the Titanic

Why is it important to evaluate and corroborate sources of information? These are not new questions, as a study of historical newspapers will confirm. Sometimes reports reflect an editorial bias, and sometimes they simply reflect what the reporter knows at the time, with updates being added as new information from more sources surfaces.