Rosa Parks: Abused and Misused

When Idaho Rep. Brent Crane characterized Rosa Parks as a champion of states’ rights in a recent debate, it was a troubling sign of what happens when a nation doesn’t work hard to remember its history.
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It’s bad enough that Rosa Parks’ decision in 1955 to stay put rather than give up her bus seat for a white man is so often seen as the reaction of a tired seamstress rather than the purposeful action of a committed civil rights activist. But when a state legislator – one with a degree in political science, no less – invokes Rosa Parks to support states’ rights and oppose health care for the disadvantaged, it’s downright galling.

It’s also a troubling sign of what happens when a nation doesn’t work hard to remember its history.

The incident, in Idaho, was brought to our attention by civil rights icon Julian Bond, who is also an emeritus member of the Board of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I thought you’d like to see this,” he wrote in an email to which he’d attached a copy of a news article from the Idaho Statesman.

The article described how Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, the third-ranking “Republican leader in the Idaho House,” cited Mrs. Parks when he stood to oppose the creation of a state-run health exchange, required as part of the health care reform act passed by Congress in 2009. “One little lady got tired of the federal government telling her what to do,” he said. “I’ve reached that point, Mr. Speaker, that I’m tired of giving into the federal government.”

As most teachers know, the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation on buses were made by the states. Rosa Parks’ arrest triggered the yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott. And it was only after the United States Supreme Court—a branch of the federal government—ruled such segregation unconstitutional that the bus boycott ended.

Maybe Crane missed the day in high school when they covered that lesson. Or perhaps he’s just not very good at remembering small details. That’s how he saw it, anyway, when he characterized it as “a slight mistake.”

We won’t even discuss the way he diminished Mrs. Parks’ legacy by calling her a “little lady.” Or that he missed the point about protecting the dispossessed and disadvantaged, the focus of her life’s work.

It does remind, us, though, that Idaho received a grade of F in our 2011 report Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011, mainly because it leaves the decision about what to teach to individual districts. It’s entirely possible that Mr. Crane had perfect attendance in high school after all.

It’s worrisome that the important lessons of our shared history can be lost in just a couple of generations, even while many of those who participated in that history are still with us. Thankfully, one of them still knows how to stand up and speak:

“It is unsurprising that state Rep. Brent Crane did not know that Rosa Parks was fighting against states' rights rather than the federal government, when she disobeyed Alabama's segregation laws; after all, Idaho received an F in teaching civil rights history in a survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

That ignorance can be remedied if the state follows Mississippi's example and mandates civil rights history be taught so young people in the future will not make such a foolish mistake.”—Julian Bond, Washington, D.C.

Costello is director of Teaching Tolerance.

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