Black History Month: Remembering Rosa Parks’ Efforts to Open a Charter School in Detroit

Posted by Buddy Moorehouse on February 8, 2018

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As we celebrate Black History Month and remember the important contributions and achievements of African Americans throughout our country’s history, here’s a story about an American hero you might not have heard before.

Back in 1997, Rosa Parks tried to open a charter school in Detroit. She had spent her entire life working to improve the lives of others, and that’s what she was attempting to do with her new charter school. The politics of the time got in the way, though, and her charter school never opened.

It’s a story of how even a civil rights icon like Rosa Parks can’t escape the political battles surrounding charter schools. When adults are intent on defending the status quo, they’ll stop at nothing. It’s a story that took place 21 years ago, but the lessons are just as pertinent now as they were then.

Rosa Parks’ vision

Rosa Parks’ life story is well-known, of course. In 1955, she heroically refused a bus driver’s order to give up her seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. Her courage that day was one of the pivotal moments in the civil rights movement, and she went on to be known as “The First Lady of Civil Rights.”

In 1957, she and her husband Raymond moved to Detroit, where they became community icons. Forty years later, she had the dream of opening a charter school for young people in Detroit.

Rosa Parks was looking to lift the fortunes of the next generation, and she felt that a charter school was the best way to do it.

“We will include not only the youngsters, but the parents and the adults, as well,” Ms. Parks told a reporter at the time. “I am really looking forward to the many good things to be done with our youth, because as you know, we have to be very careful with our young people.”

 “Pride, Dignity and Courage”

As this 1997 story from the New York Times indicates, Ms. Parks’ charter school would be called the Raymond and Rosa Parks School for Self-Development. In the official proposal for the school, she wrote, “The principles are based on their life experiences of pride, dignity and courage.”

Anna Amato, a pioneer in the charter school movement in Michigan, was the consultant helping Ms. Parks with her proposal. Speaking to the New York Times in 1997, Ms. Amato said, '”We hope this works out, because we want parents to know there are options out there that are not bound by where they live and how much money they make.”

President Bill Clinton was even impressed when he heard about the project. Speaking to the NAACP on July 17, 1997, President Clinton said, “I am pleased that Rosa Parks, who taught us a lot about dignity and equality, is now working to open a charter school in Detroit. And I urge you to consider doing so in your communities. If you believe it will help, the Department of Education will help you.” 

Politics kills the project

Alas, the anti-charter politics of the day killed the project – the same politics that are alive and well today – and the Raymond and Rosa Parks School for Self-Development never came to be.

Ms. Parks had applied for charter authorization through the Detroit Public Schools, but her proposed school never even made it to the board table for a vote. As Anna Amato remembers, the anti-charter politics in the Detroit school district were too much to overcome.

Even Rosa Parks herself couldn’t overcome all that. Think about that for a second. Rosa Parks – Rosa Parks – wanted to open a charter school in Detroit, and the defenders of the status quo wouldn’t let her.

If she couldn’t get past the politics that puts adults ahead of children, what chance does anyone else have?

As we see those same anti-charter politics alive and well in Detroit and Michiganthese days, let’s remember Rosa Parks’ struggle to be a beacon of educational hope for the next generation.

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