The children’s doll sat pristine and untouched on the classroom desk, encased in a red and gold rectangular box adorned with patterns of vines and roses. With caramel-colored skin, the woman stands before the background of a bus, her big brown eyes staring forward through white spectacles as if completely zoned out. Dressed in a hat, gray coat, and floral-printed dress, she clutches a pocketbook, almost completely resembling the historical figure for which she was designed.
“As much as I love it,” Dr. Melissa Ford said. “It’s everything wrong with the way that we think about Rosa Parks.”
The Barbie, part of an “Inspiring Women” series issued by Mattel last October, was featured along with the likes of trailblazers such as aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, the first American woman to float in the weightlessness of space.
“We’re not even talking about the bus,” Ford said. “You can watch any PBS special to get that story.”
“My admiration came from the fact that she was fighting her entire life for so much more than a spot on the bus,” later added Ford, who first learned of Parks’ longer story in grad school.
Ford, who teaches, among other things, African American history at Slippery Rock University, paraded the $30 figurine Tuesday during common hour in a discussion held by Phi Alpha Theta. Members from the NAACP, FMLA, and Gender Studies Club also presented, furthering the discourse on gender, race, and historical viewpoints that are frequently overlooked in classrooms of any level.
If one was to study to what degree an individual’s actions define them, Rosa Louise Parks would make an interesting case. More often than not, Parks is viewed as the tired, soft-spoken seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus.
“In reality, she wasn’t tired at all,” MaryAnn Steinmiller, the public relations officer for Phi Alpha Theta said.
“If we were to look at the way that Mattel and Barbie and popular history present her as this one static moment, we are doing her a disservice and injustice,” Ford said.
Maggie Calvert, a president for the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), presented first. The FMLA, Calvert said, is a group dedicated to spreading intersectional feminism and promoting social justice across campus.
Unknown to many, revealed Calvert, who majors in each political science, philosophy, and gender studies, Parks was an advocate for sexual justice well before her civil activism. In 1943, a 30-year-old Parks joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Montgomery, Alabama as a volunteer secretary. She also investigated sexual violence, as the organization protected men who were falsely accused and allowed black people the resources needed to go to court for sexual assault.
Working as a housekeeper in 1931, Parks was offered a drink by a white man she worked for, who then made sexual advances towards her. She wrote a six-page essay detailing the events, but never told the story.
Calvert recited a quote of Parks’, “I was ready to, but to give my consent? Never, never, never.”
One of the most prominent cases Parks was involved in was that of Abbeville, Alabama’s Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old who was walking home from church in 1944 when she was picked up by a handful of white men and gang-raped. Taylor’s life was threatened if she told anyone and shrugged off by the local sheriff, who told her he didn’t want troublemakers in the town
Parks then launched the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor, a case that made national news. The men, after attempting to pay for Taylor’s silence, were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury that October. Parks sent a letter to the governor about his failure to the people of Alabama.
“Unfortunately, they did not get the outcome they wanted,” Calvert said. “But they were able to kind of show the public that this did happen, [saying] ‘Something happened to this woman and we’re not going to stay silent about it.”
Taylor was one of the first cases to speak out against her abuser. It wasn’t until 2011 when the Alabama House approved an apology for failure to prosecute the men. Taylor was 91 and in poor health.
“We think about the #MeToo movement, starting with Alyssa Milano, but it’s actually black women who started these kinds of movements,” Calvert said.
Kayla Nolan, the treasurer of SRU’s recently-opened NAACP chapter, which is looking to become compliant, then spoke about Rosa Parks’ involvement in the organization. Headquartered in Baltimore, the 111-year-old NAACP’s mission is “to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality for the rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.”
“She was the spark that started the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Nolan said. “But, she was not the first to take a seat, let me clarify that right now.”
Parks name carried a stigma after the bus. She and her husband were fired from their jobs after her act of protest. Martin Luther King Jr. took over the bus boycott. The movement needed a Baptist preacher who would bring everyone to their feet.
“During this time, gender roles were a very real thing,” she said. “You needed a man to lead a movement. You couldn’t have a soft-spoken seamstress.
The couple received threats on their lives, leaving Alabama two years later for Detroit and Parks’ brother’s crowded, derelict house.
“Phyiscally and mentally, the boycott and her activism took a toll,” Ford said of the impoverished Parks, who had developed a stomach ulcer and throat tumor that needed removing. “However, Rosa Parks is a bad-ass. And she refused to give up.”
Parks remained politically involved as a social organizer in the Motor City. She rubbed elbows with other civil rights figures; such as Stokeley Carmichael, a socialist organizer who coined the term “Black Power”; former world-champion boxer Muhammad Ali; and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to congress.
Steinmiller educated the room on Rosa Parks’ portrayal in the collective public memory. The strongest point of her speech being the clash of cultures seen around the country. She displayed a photo of two street signs sitting atop a pole in Montgomery. One avenue was named after Parks. The other was in dedication to Jefferson Davis, the leader of the confederacy.
In the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol Building, a bronze statue of Parks stares directly at another sculpture of Davis, a man that led the charge for a southern way of life built on the concept of slavery.
“I feel like public education didn’t really do justice in teaching us what happened,” Keaton Allison said, who presented about education systems’ roles in teaching about Parks and the Civil Rights Movement. “And part of that was, basically, curriculum.”
Every teacher has to follow a handful of rules, Allison explained, and that’s why students only see the tip of the iceberg that is Rosa Parks.
Retired police officer Lisa Boeving-Learned, a senior criminal justice major and history minor, pointed out that African Americans who attain fame have to work harder to be recognized for accomplishments rather than race.
Senior Kendall Alexander, a senior dance and psychology double major, offered an example.
“Beyonce’s not black,” Alexander said. “She’s Beyonce.”
Parks, of course, will be forever tied to bus no. 2857, which now resides in the Henry Ford Museum. But, Ford says, she deserves to be recognized for much more.
“The story they tell us isn’t necessarily the historical truth,” Ford said. “You should always be educating, always be learning, and always be pushing what you think you know.”