Everything you know about Rosa Parks is wrong—unless you’ve been studying with education-reform activist Kohl (A Grain of Poetry, 1999, etc.).
The canonical version of the Parks story is ably represented by an elementary-school textbook published 15 years ago: “One day Rosa was tired. She sat in the front. The bus driver told her to move. She did not. He called the police. Rosa was put in jail.” The account misses one other well-worn trope—that Parks was a poor seamstress. That this is the story schoolchildren—white, black, Asian, Hispanic—know displeases Kohl, who sternly observes (after noting the presumptuousness of calling Mrs. Parks by her first name) that the Montgomery bus boycott that began in December 1955 was the work of African-Americans alone. This is not strictly correct, and Kohl later enlarges the view to include white sympathizers; still, his point that the resistance came from within oppressed communities and grew to embrace others stands. There are many other useful points throughout this reconstruction of events: The author notes, for instance, that Parks was not alone and not even the first to be arrested for resisting the law by which African-Americans had to sit in the “colored-only” (i.e., back) section of Montgomery buses—and then cede those seats to whites should the white section fill up. He adds, too, that Parks was no accidental convert to the cause, moved by tiredness to rebel; in fact, she had long been involved in civil-rights issues and was secretary of the local brach of the NAACP. Kohl proposes a similarly useful alternative narrative, one that does not disguise or whitewash the facts of organized racism.
If grade-schoolers are truly equipped to comprehend a past of poll taxes, lynching and institutional hatred in the place of the current pieties, then Kohl’s lesson plan will serve them well.