We know just enough history to get it wrong

The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were key episodes in the struggle to win equal rights for all Americans. It hurts to see them used for purposes that seem antithetical to the civil rights movement.

Last week, the Bloomington Herald-Times reported on one of the many fights that have erupted over whether students should wear face coverings to limit the spread of COVID-19. A father told the reporter that he and his fifth-grade daughter were inspired by Rosa Parks to reject wearing masks.

Rosa Parks. (U.S. Courts image)

“On Sunday night, she wanted me to talk to me about Rosa Parks and if that was true that Rosa Parks really just stopped doing something and everyone changed,” he told a reporter. “And I said absolutely it’s true.”

Maybe we should be encouraged that a 10-year-old in a rural school district that’s 95% white would be inspired by the actions of a Black seamstress 65 years ago. The problem is, we’ve learned a mostly false story about Rosa Parks. She wasn’t a simple seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus because she was tired. She was a quiet but committed activist who served as secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and traveled to the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee for interracial activism training, a radical act at that time.

Letting her arrest be used to challenge segregation was an act of profound courage. “The white folks will kill you, Rosa,” her husband told her. He no doubt meant it literally, and with good reason.

Parks wasn’t protesting the inconvenience or discomfort of wearing a mask in order to check the spread of a deadly disease. She was striking a blow against the Jim Crow segregation that had relegated her people to second-class citizenship for 80 years.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, which Parks’ arrest sparked, lasted over a year and led to a Supreme Court decision that the city’s buses had to be integrated. It launched the activist career of Martin Luther King Jr., then a 26-year-old minister. Now everyone, it seems, wants to claim King as their own.

At a central Indiana school board meeting last week, an anti-mask parent said, “This is our Martin Luther King moment to say no,” a reporter tweeted. It wasn’t clear what he meant, but it seems unlikely King would have downplayed the seriousness of a virus that’s hit Black Americans especially hard.

At the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King famously talked about his dream that someday his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today, Republican legislators – in Texas and elsewhere – twist those words to try to prevent students from learning hard truths about America’s racial history, which they label “critical race theory.” They say that teaching about race is “divisive” and could make white children uncomfortable.

But Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the person they make him out to have been. He engaged in repeated acts of nonviolent civil disobedience and was jailed 29 times. He spoke out against racism, poverty and violence. Three-fourths of the American public disapproved of him, especially after he brought his anti-racism campaign to the North and began speaking against the Vietnam War.

He was one of the most divisive people in America. He rightly made us uncomfortable.

All this invoking of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. for causes they wouldn’t have supported suggests Americans know too little about our country’s past. We all need to learn more, not less, about how racism has shaped our world.

2 thoughts on “We know just enough history to get it wrong

  1. Pingback: Steve Hinnefeld: The Absurd Misuse of History | Diane Ravitch's blog

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