FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

In Search of Rosa Parks

The following post has nothing to do with futurism or technology. But it is timely, and it does illustrate the powerful nature of information and change.

Today saw the funeral of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus sparked the civil rights movement that thrust Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into the spotlight and led to many of the rights that Americans today take for granted. Today -- especially today -- she's a household name. But when I was an elementary school student back in the early 1970s, it was a different story.

Our third-grade class (in an all-white school, it should be noted) was assigned to write a report about a notable American. We were to draw names from a hat, and write our report on the name we drew -- no trading or do-overs allowed. Most of my classmates drew familiar names... George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Edison, Betsy Ross.

I drew Rosa Parks.

I asked the teacher who Rosa Parks was. She just shrugged; the point of the assignment was that we had to do all the research on our own, and asking the teacher would be cheating.

Fair enough... so off to the library I go. Hmmm... nothing in the encyclopedia. No books in the card catalog. I asked the librarian, and she looked at me as if I were from another planet. She asked her assistant, who couldn't understand why I would be asking such an annoying question.

So I went home, confident that my parents would know something about this Rosa Parks. But that night, they were just as perplexed as the library ladies. My father and I went to the local public library (going online wouldn't be an option for another two decades). Again, nothing.

Now it was starting to become a problem. My classmates were well into their reports, finding plenty of books and encyclopedia entries on their subjects. And the due date was edging ever closer. I told my teacher that this mysterious Rosa Parks didn't seem to exist. Too bad, she replied, keep looking. My father took me to other libraries in the area. Still, Rosa Parks remained elusive.

At a time when parental involvement in children's schoolwork was frowned upon, my mother took the extraordinary step of calling the teacher and explaining my predicament. Could I be assigned another subject? No, but the teacher did agree to point me in the direction of some resources.

Finally, a glimmer of hope. Working with my teacher, the librarian found a slim volume on the civil rights movement. It was a children's book that appeared to have been recently published. The book contained a single paragraph on the woman, alongside an illustration copying the now-famous photo of Mrs. Parks seated on a bus, looking out its window. Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus and got in trouble for it. The end.

My report stunk. Even in third grade, one can't write a decent academic paper based on three sentences from a single, juvenile source. But it was the best I could do given the resources at hand. Oh well.

Thirty years later, schoolchildren are not burdened by such a predicament. Not only do kids have access to the web and other tools I could only dream about, but they live in a world far more diverse, more familiar with Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement in general. Wikipedia contains a comprehensive entry on the woman, and a simple Google search yields a stunning 20,000,000 results (though, granted, many of these are news stories covering her recent passing). There is even a handy Rosa Parks Portal containing links to news stories, essays and other resources, as well as an entire domain.

That third-grade assignment taught me very little about Rosa Parks... but that really wasn't the point anyway. The purpose was to teach us how to research. In that vein -- and with three decades of perspective behind it -- I learned that information is inseparable from context. Even as late as the early 70s, civil rights remained a disruptive concept, still threatening to many. Had I been in contact with people of color who were better educated about the civil right struggle, it's doubtful my research would have been so difficult. My teacher -- who was young at the time, and probably far more tuned in to race relations than her colleagues -- deserves credit for throwing someone like Rosa Parks into the mix of notable Americans, but perhaps she should have considered that information on her might be hard to come by in our lily-white community.

Today, our information sources are more diverse... not only because of the Internet and globalization, but because information gatekeepers such as librarians work harder to ensure that their patrons have access to a broad array of resources. People such as these deserve our support for exposing us to such a broad pool of information, even if we have no intention (or ability) to consume it all.

This past week, we've heard a lot about how Mrs. Parks' simple actions changed America so profoundly. But apparently, the people in my third-grade world couldn't see that yet. Times, of course, have changed.