Equity & Diversity Opinion

More Than Moments: Teach the Full Story of Activists

By Christina Torres — December 01, 2015 3 min read
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Today is the 60th Anniversary of Rosa Park’s act of protest on a Montgomery bus.

It’s shameful that so much of Ms. Park’s story has been glossed over. In “Remembering Rosa Parks,” from The Atlantic, Nshira Turkson writes about the fact that so many of us learn “the passive and accidental revolution in Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man because she was too tired to stand.”

I, too, learned and even perpetuated this myth about Rosa Parks. It fit into a narrative that might seem appealing to many: a quiet Black woman, tired from work, refuses to give up her seat for a white man because what right did he have to take it from her? Her internal decision making (as though this ride on the bus were the first time she or any other Black woman thought, ‘Hey, inequality sucks, right?’) and quiet refusal sparks a national movement that leads to Civil Rights and equality and now we’re not racist anymore, right?

Of course, all that is far from the truth. Rosa Parks had long understood the implications of racism and was an activist for long before she was “too tired” to get up. She was also not the first to refuse to move, as Claudette Colvin was fifteen when she did the same earlier that year.

That’s the problem with teaching the myth of political moments instead of movements: a moment is a singular event that comes from the spontaneous action of a singular hero. It is miraculous and, perhaps, even superhuman. Moments are easy to admire, but seemingly impossible to duplicate.

Movements, on the other hand, take work and struggle. It takes organized and purposeful action to decide that, yes, this moment will build on the actions and work of others to help build momentum to change. Movements involve the occasional failure, the need to restructure and reorganize, and the persistent drum beat of one’s heart to ignore the status quo begging us to “let it be” and “not make too many waves.”

We need to teach kids to build movements, not just seek moments. Instead of giving our students permission to wait and be saved by some superhuman in a moment of extreme despair, we need to give our students the tools and skills to see themselves as movement-makers. They need to know that they can organize. They can make change-- it means we all have to pitch in and do the work.

This sentiment should ring even more true for educators, by the way. We have to do the work too. We can’t simply spend our time venting about edu-policy or filling up comment threads about how “the education system is a complete failure.” Creating the space to listen and vent is important, but at the end of the day we have kids in the room being failed by the system, and not just because they take too many standardized tests. We can’t just wait for the right “moment” for things to get fixed, we need to start doing the work to fix it. We need to start working with and listening to the communities we serve. We must start working with them to build a movement.

That’s why it’s essential to teach the real histories of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other important activists: we need to listen to and learn from their stories. To put them on a pedestal or behind museum glass makes their achievements seem almost unreachable. It undermines the call to action so many of them had for us, and also fails to recognize the years of work and struggle they and so many others put into making change in their communities. Their work was so much more than a moment, and we should honor that by teaching the whole story.

So, I hope we heed that call to action and teach more than the moment. We must teach students and ourselves as much context and history as we can. We need those stories to help us ensure that the movement in us all keeps building.

Some helpful resources to teach more about activists:

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.