The Myths Surrounding Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Recently during Black History Month in February, C-Span 3’s American History TV aired a history lecture from Wellesley College Professor Brenna Greer. Professor Greer, an African American woman, aimed to deconstruct the myths surrounding Rosa Parks as just a Black woman who had had enough when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1,1955, and that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was short and successfully ended segregated busing.

There are a few major points in her argument regarding Rosa Parks. One, that Rosa’s actions were not done on a whim; that they were deliberate, planned and coordinated. This was also the case of Homer Plessy on a train car in Louisiana in 1892.

Two, that Rosa was not “the first” Black woman to take such an action. In fact, Ida B. Wells, a Black female journalist who publicized lynchings of Black Americans in the late 19th century, had also challenged racial segregation in the 1880s when she refused to move from her seat on a train on May 4, 1884.

Flowing along the myths is the question of why. Why was it necessary to create such myths about a woman and an action of civil disobedience that led to a historic transformation in America’s story?

At one point, Professor Greer asks students to raise their hands if they first learned about Rosa Parks when in elementary school. Most hands went up. But when asked if they learned anything about her in high school, it was a very different story as just two or three hands were shown. Greer attributes much of this to the false notion that children need very simple characters, when in reality, in Greer’s view, children, whose minds are “very flexible,” could certainly understand a more complex character, like the real Rosa Parks.

As for adults in the 1950s, if one pictures Rosa like the sweet, “middle class” and light-skinned Black woman as she can be perceived by the picture below, she is easier for the public to swallow.

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Rosa Parks, 1955

According to Greer, she was typically described as an “elderly seamstress with tired feet” and “many news accounts didn’t even give her name.” Rosa was 42 when she made history. Contrast that with Ida B. Wells, who appears strong and hardened by her experiences in the Jim Crow South. Wells’ own printing outfit was burned down by a white mob.

File:Face detail, from- Ida B. Wells circa 1895 by Cihak and Zima (cropped).jpg
Ida B. Wells, 1895

Additional challenges to segregated transportation from Black Americans in the same year that Rosa made history are also highlighted, including those of Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder and Mary Louise Smith. As Professor Greer put it, “We need to scratch off that Rosa Parks was ‘the first.'”

Professor Greer seems to argue that the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s had smartened up to the fact that the press would not show as much attention, and the public would not show as much sympathy, to a Black woman who looked like Claudette Colvin or the other women, who the public would perceive, through media accounts, as “too dark” and “too poor.”

To clear up the myth from the “fairy tale” that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was short, Ms. Greer points out that the it lasted 381 days. She poses the question “How long do you think most people, if not yourself, thought the boycott was?” Answers appeared to range from a few weeks to a couple months. The extensive length of time, over a year, is evidence of just how ingrained segregation was in the South. It took Browder v. Gayle (yes, that’s Aurelia Browder), a lower court case that challenged Montgomery’s racial segregation on public buses, which eventually reached the Supreme Court, to finally see an order for integrated buses in Montgomery. A few days later, on December 21st, the leaders of the movement decided to set foot on Montgomery buses once more.

Watch the lecture here.

This article originally appeared on the blog Right Guy, Wrong Town.

Civics Lesson: What are Checks and Balances?

Checks and balances…to some, it sounds like a personal finance concept. But to social studies teachers, it’s one of the most crucial ideas in American government that serve as an indicator of whether or not a student grasps other fundamental concepts like separation of powers and the three branches. In short, if your students don’t understand the meaning of checks and balances after a semester of civics, it’s time to remediate and fix the error.

Main Idea of Checks and Balances

Checks and balances relies on the constitutional framework that provides for three branches of government, each with its own separate and distinct roles and powers. One Founding Father who detailed this idea while advocating for ratification of the U.S. Constitution was James Madison (see Federalist No. 47). Madison based his ideas about the separation of powers on the writings of French philosopher Montesquieu. In short, to avoid tyranny and absolute power in the hands of one branch or group of people, separate branches with the ability to “check” or cancel the actions of another branch were essential. In historical and modern terms, one quick example is detailed by the process of passing a bill and signing it into law: if a bill passes in Congress, it is up to the president to sign or veto–reject–the bill. It is not law until signed by the president. That’s checks and balances.

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James Madison

Example 1: Legislative Checks the Executive

One role of the legislative branch involves the confirmation or rejection of presidential appointments. No, this does not mean that the Speaker of the House confirms that the president has a dentist appointment at 9 AM next Thursday. It means that when a recently elected president nominates someone to be his Cabinet secretary for the Department of Agriculture, the upper chamber in the legislative branch, the Senate, holds hearings to examine the background and qualifications of the nominee, and ultimately votes to confirm or reject the nominee to the position. That’s an example of checks and balances, and one in which the national legislature holds great power over the executive branch.

Example 2: Executive Checks the Legislative

One of the easiest to remember was detailed in the main idea earlier: the president vetoes a bill. In doing so, the president–the chief executive–has “checked” the power of Congress–the national legislature. Of course, as checks and balances go, if Congress can muster 2/3rds of its members to vote to overrule the president’s veto, the bill will become law, which is another way that the legislative branch checks the executive.

Example 3: Judicial Checks the Legislative & Executive

Another lesson for another time will be on the judicial power of judicial review, which was established in 1803 via the Supreme Court’s decision in Marbury v Madison. That said, judicial review is the power of the courts to overturn what are deemed unconstitutional laws. Clearly, the most landmark reversals are initiated by the U.S. Supreme Court, including Brown v Board in 1954, which overturned Plessy v Ferguson (1896, “separate but equal”). Put simply, when the judicial branch throws out an unconstitutional law, it’s a check on the legislative branch that wrote, debated and passed the bill, and the executive who signed it into law. This check illustrates the immense power of the Supreme Court and the judicial branch.

See Articles I, II and III

Of course there are many other examples of the three branches “checking” the powers of each other, and the primary source to those details is the U.S. Constitution, specifically in Articles I, II and III. However, I think the ones above are the easiest for middle school and high school students to grasp. What are some of your favorite examples of checks and balances? Leave your comments below.

Great Websites for Social Studies Teachers

Every teacher has their personal favorites when it comes to websites and resources online that help them hone their craft. As a social studies teacher who is always trying to improve his lessons and courses, I’ve come to rely on a few websites that are definitely worth checking out:

USHistory.org – This is a free collection of online textbooks for social studies. There is a U.S. History, Ancient Civilizations and American Government textbook. I use it mainly for my online courses and tutoring, however, I can also see how this website would be useful in a traditional setting when students go to their school library or use technology in the classroom & do research for a project.

UH – DigitalHistory – This website from the University of Houston provides an extraordinary collection of primary sources, digital stories, public domain images, timelines, lesson plans and more for both teachers and students. There are written historical overviews for every major American historical era since the first Americans (pre-Columbus), and each era contains links to and passages about the documents, events, people, music, film, and images that are related. It’s the motherlode of social studies content!

Quizlet – When I’m short on time, but need to be ready for an upcoming lesson, I use Quizlet and its myriad of both teacher and student created flashcards. It helped me remediate my civics students in Virginia, and it allows students to take the learning into their own hands when you provide iPads in a small group setting.

It contains a pretty intuitive set of activities: learn, flashcards, matching, write, spelling and test. It does contain one hiccup: when using the learn or test activity, student answer choices can become quite obvious, e.g. What’s the distance a Phoenician ship could say in a day? A) 30 miles, B) Carthage, C) King Minos, or D) 60,000? However, that aside, it’s a priceless resource for social studies teachers.

That’s all for now. I’ll continue to update this post as more great resources are added to my repertoire. Have any suggestions? Leave a comment below, and sign up for our free newsletter to receive more social studies teaching tips.