I teach American history at a Canadian university, and am frequently taken aback when my students propose essays on Rosa Parks’ “completely spontaneous decision to sit at the front of the bus”, or how MLK was the “only” or “most important” figure in the civil rights movement. I have to remind myself when responding to such proposals that these kids are young and naive, and as such are very limited in their historical context. However, when that rare and wonderful final paper arrives on my desk, considering Rosa Parks as an excellent choice for such a protest because of her age, gender, and occupation, and how her fellow protesters and civil rights leaders made such an impact because they allowed seemingly innocuous people to become heroes among their communities, in amazingly well-coordinated grassroots movements, I am inspired.
I consider my most important role as an educator to encourage and guide my students to look beyond the culturally approved narrative (i.e. the media-inspired narrative) and look critically at what the historical evidence can reveal. Thanks for your contribution to this exercise in inspiration!