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This 50-year-old article shows how the myth of Rosa Parks was made

Rosa Parks's mugshot, 1955.
Rosa Parks's mugshot, 1955.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty

Thursday marks the 61st anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man — an action that got her arrested, sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, and arguably kicked off the civil rights movement as we know it. It's also, apparently, the 51st anniversary of everyone forgetting who Rosa Parks was.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times dug up a profile of Parks it published in December 1965 — for the 10-year anniversary of her arrest. But the profile starts off with a weird line about how most people don't recognize her name:

DETROIT — When you mention Rosa Parks' name these days most people ask 'Who?' but some get emotional and call her 'the mother of the civil rights movement as we know it.'

No, seriously, that's the first line of the story. Check it out:

Rosa Parks 1965 clip.
Los Angeles Times

It's strange to think that Parks — who's so closely identified with the civil rights movement in 2016 that Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's nominee for Attorney General, is seeking anti-racist cred because he supported giving her the Congressional Medal of Honor — would have been so forgotten just 10 years after her act. But the Los Angeles Times article is more than a historical curiosity. It's a window into how the myth of Rosa Parks was made.

Tired, or tired of giving in?

There's a basic story that schoolchildren get told about Rosa Parks: She was an everyday woman who worked hard at her job and was tired at the end of the day. She sat down on that bus, and stayed sitting, because she was just too fatigued to get up.

That story hammers home the basic indignity to which African Americans were subjected under segregation, and it makes Parks an inspiring "everyday hero" type. But, as activists often point out, it's not true: Parks was an anti-segregation activist. She was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP. She'd attended civil-rights trainings. She'd actually tried to raise money for the release of other young black women who'd been arrested after refusing to stand on Montgomery buses earlier in 1955 — but whom other black leaders considered to be inappropriate spokespeople for a campaign.

As Parks herself later put it, "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in."

Hillary Rosa Parks avatar
Hillary Clinton's campaign celebrates Rosa Parks as a civil rights activist hero.
Hillary Clinton via Twitter

But the Los Angeles Times story is a reminder that the children's-story version of Parks's arrest didn't just become part of American mythology automatically. For the first decade after her arrest, Parks was barely remembered at all; only afterward was she remembered as a tired-lady, saintly folk hero.

The Times article didn't singlehandedly create the Rosa Parks myth. But you can definitely see it starting to form. Right after the "Who?" line, the Times says Parks is famous — but that of course she's too "quiet, pious (and) dignified" to actually admit it. (Apparently, admitting you're famous is "unladylike.")

Parks herself appears to have encouraged the idea that she was simply tired. Here's how the article describes her account, 10 years after the fact:

Today at 52 she still can't quite explain exactly why she did what she did 10 years ago — on the darkening evening of Dec. 1 — in her hometown of Montgomery, Ala.

She was going home from work as a seamstress at a downtown department store and was tired all over, she remembers.

'I was sitting down and the bus driver wanted me to stand up and give my seat for a white male passenger. It was the custom and the law but I simply couldn't do it.'