When Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week, his goal was to counteract the mis- and dis-information that black people were fed on the regular. When Negro History Week became Black History Month, it was expanded with the same general purpose in mind. But the story of Rosa Parks should cause us to reconsider the types of historical narratives we are sharing.
The story is straightforward right? Rosa Parks gets tired, does not want to give up her seat, gets thrown in jail, and everyone comes together to boycott, ending segregation on public buses. This simple version sounds a lot like a historical version of a G.I. Joe cartoon – the enemies are easily identified, the black community comes together with the quickness, and the problem is solved.
But the real story is a bit different from the childish tale that gets passed down each year during Black History Month. A number of women protested the segregated bus conditions in Montgomery before Rosa Parks. But none could be used as a public figure to mobilize citizens. One of the protesters was single, teenage, and pregnant, and her parents would not allow her name to be used in public. One beat the bus driver senseless when he tried to move her (she ended up dying in jail). So Rosa Parks was perfect.
She had a solid, middle-class background. She had no supposed flaws in her character, and she had attempted to break the rules regarding segregated seats before. Perfect. After she had been arrested, protest organizers wanted to hold a meeting to plan the boycott, but they couldn’t find a place to hold it. Someone suggested that they use a church.
But when the organizers went to Montgomery pastors to ask them to open their church for a meeting, not one pastor spoke up to offer his help. Silence; from almost every single one of them. Pastors had families, and congregations to protect. And Jim Crow was not just about black and white seats on buses – Jim Crow was about state-sponsored terrorism. It was about lynchings; about people disappearing after dissenting, never to return.
Finally, two pastors expressed interest in the cause: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, the youngest and newest pastors in Montgomery. But they would only agree to use their church if their identities were hidden. This did not appeal to organizers for a number of reasons. So they pressed the issue (they had to press King and Abernathy to even consider holding the meeting in the first place). Finally, King and Abernathy relented.
When the meeting finally happened, did black people just agree on the spot? Of course not.
Black women who used the buses regularly were concerned about being fired from their jobs, and putting their families out on the street. Black cab drivers were worried about losing their businesses if transportation was integrated. Black professionals were worried about losing their standing with white business owners. Black pastors were concerned about terrorists (“Night Riders”) coming to burn their churches down – and worse – in the middle of the night. They finally agreed on a course of action, but only after hours upon hours of knock down, drag out fights – literally.
They continued to have fights over 381 days they conducted the boycott. After it was over, and they were successful in their fight, King actually wanted to stop the movement after the success in Montgomery. He was grateful for the boycott’s success, but he was not interested in continuing that struggle into other cities. He only agreed to do so after being almost brow beaten by organizers. The rest, as they say, is history.
Note the differences between the two stories? What stands out about the second story is its richness, and its realistic portrayal of politics. Whereas in the first story, there are no disputes, black people don’t have different interests, and black leaders express no doubts and no fear. They just get together and do the damn thing. This account is wrong – dead wrong.
If Black History Month means being subjected to those types of stories, then perhaps we should toss it.
Lester Spence is an assistant professor in political science at John Hopkins University.