Kohl discusses Rosa Parks story

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Students, faculty, and visitors alike crowded into the Scheuer Room late yesterday afternoon as Mr. Herbert Kohl held a lecture discussing his newly published book, “She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (2005).” Mr. Kohl, the Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change at Swarthmore , focused on the mythological fabrications that have emanated from Mrs. Rosa Parks’ nationally heralded moment in civil rights history.

“[December 1] is the 50th anniversary of the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks, but not the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Kohl said. Mr. Kohl, a familiar acquaintance of Mrs. Parks, was at the University of Minnesota discussing the
validity of children’s literature regarding Mrs. Parks, when he observed that the literature and history was manipulated.

“The children’s story about Mrs. Parks is wrong. It’s a fairy tale,” Kohl said. “[In the history books] you have this tired, African-American woman; she’s a seamstress; she’s been working; she’s tired; she gets on a bus; she gets arrested. Then there’s a boycott the next day, and it’s a success,” Kohl stated. Mr. Kohl’s new book serves to get the record straight on Mrs. Parks, the mythology behind the events of 1955, as well as the critical value of communal support.

According to Kohl, after America recovered from WWII, men and women began grass-roots movements across the nation to end “legal segregation.” A group of female professors at the University of Alabama were forced off a bus prior to Mrs. Parks. Elsewhere, E.D. Nixon began organizing support through various worker unions and churches as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This effectively began the mobilization of a unified, black movement.

Mr. Kohl insists the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a premeditated plot, rather than what he calls the myth: a black community ignited by one fortunate event. In fact, two Montgomery residents had been arrested for refusing to surrender their seats aboard public buses prior to Mrs. Parks. Claudette Colvin, a fifteen year-old high school student, was one of those people. However, Nixon discovered she was pregnant at the time; he decided her illegitimate child may serve as a moral drawback if Colvin were to serve as the movement’s icon.

According to Kohl, the severity of consequence forced leaders of the black community of Montgomery to wait for the optimum moment, around the mid-1950’s, to start a boycott. The opportunity presented itself to Mrs. Parks on Dec. 1, 1995, and she took it. The fact that she took responsibility and accepted such a heavy burden is what many admire most about Mrs. Parks.”People try to make it out that Mrs. Parks did something romantic. What Mrs. Parks did was not
romantic; it was dangerous. And she knew that,” Kohl said.

However, the mythology and fabrications that made Mrs. Parks a martyr took root in history books across the nation. “I asked Mrs. Parks if she was tired that day. She told me, ‘I’ve been tired since the day I was born.’ She was no more tired that day than any other,” Kohl said.

Similarly, in Mrs. Parks’ autobiography, “My Story,” she wrote: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Mrs. Parks and Mr. Kohl tried to communicate that the boycott was not some kind of fortunate accident; however, history books have distorted the truth slightly.

Within this revelation lies a question: Why construct such a glorified and heroic tale, rather than record the history asis? According to Mr. Kohl, myth-making helps the white people in power feel superior to a minority. By creating a myth, the white people in power suggest that a minority is incapable of organizing and mobilizing itself for a just cause. That type of coordination involves intelligent and careful planning, circumstances in which Mr. Kohl believes our government did not want to acknowledge.

“It’s sociological racism. If the white people felt that the blacks were capable of being intelligent and powerful, it would be dangerous,” Kohl said. While Mr. Kohl reflected on the brilliant leadership of Mrs. Parks, Nixon, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he also left his audience contemplating the value of being a follower.

“Everyone wants to be a big leader; everyone wants to lead the world. Nelson Mandela wrote that ‘the Sheppard follows the flock.’ The sheep know where the food is better than the Sheppard. Don’t try to be a leader before you learn how to be a follower. Remember to be humble. Humility is good for the soul.”

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