Teaching Activities (Free)

The Rebellious Lives of Mrs. Rosa Parks

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow.
In this mixer lesson, students learn about Rosa Parks’ many decades of activism by taking on roles from various times in her life. In this way, students learn about her “rebellious life” before, during, and long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Time Periods: 20th Century, Cold War: 1945 - 1960, People’s Movement: 1961 - 1974, Post-Civil Rights Era: 1975 - 2000
Themes: African American, Civil Rights Movements, Women's History

Rosa Parks, November, 1956. Source: Library of Congress.

The title of this lesson is lifted from Jeanne Theoharis’s fine book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shutdown of schools across the country, the Zinn Education Project has sponsored seminars we’ve called “People’s Historians Online.” The first were conversations between Rethinking Schools editor and Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian and Brooklyn College professor and author Jeanne Theoharis, about the misrepresentation of Rosa Parks in the dominant narrative of the Civil Rights Movement.

The sessions were wonderful — filled with story after story of Mrs. Parks’ lifelong commitment to racial justice. Theoharis emphasized that although textbooks and national tributes often focus only on Mrs. Parks’ courageous gesture of refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man, Mrs. Parks’ entire life is a tapestry of resistance. And, indeed, she spent more than half her life in the North — which Mrs. Parks called “the Northern promised land that wasn’t” — fighting segregation and injustice there.

During the 1979–1980 school year, Mrs. Parks visited the Oakland Community School (OCS), an elementary school run by the Black Panther Party. Educator and Black Panther Party leader Ericka Huggins is the woman standing among the children. Photo by Donald Cunningham. Source: Ericka Huggins and Lisbet Tellefsen

Rosa Parks at the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, March 1972. Credit: LeRoy W. Henderson

Listening to Prof. Theoharis tell stories about Rosa Parks’ “rebellious life” — from when she was 6 years old after World War I, sitting on her grandpa’s porch waiting for the Klan to show up, to marching against South African apartheid in her 70s — it struck me that one way to animate Mrs. Parks’ “lives” in the classroom would be for students to encounter some of these through a mixer role play.

In this activity, instead of students representing different individuals as they do in other mixers, every student portrays a different rebellious moment in Rosa Parks’ life. And through meeting one another, students surface the patterns of defiance on behalf of justice that coursed through her life. By sharing stories with each other, students are able to pry behind the “she was just tired” myth.

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