Student Work

Rosa Parks: Think Aloud 1

Watch Andrew contextualize Bayard Rustin's Diary

"So, hmm, so they’re afraid of his differences here, one for being gay, and two for the Communist, I guess that the one thing they did not want to do is make it look like the Communists were supporting this movement because then that would spook everyone in America because, well not everyone in America, but this was during a great fear of Communists in America and would definitely, if the movement was aligned with Communists, then it would lose a lot of support."

In this clip, Andrew demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of contextualization. Reading the head note for the Rustin document, Andrew notices the description of Rustin as a "gay Communist" who was asked to leave Montgomery. As a high school sophomore, Andrew has not yet studied 20th century American history in high school, but he clearly has some knowledge about the Communist Party and how it was perceived at that time. He notes, "This was during a great fear of Communists in America." He understands that Rustin’s involvement would hurt the larger Civil Rights movement, "if the movement was aligned with the Communists, then it would lose a lot of support."

Andrew draws on knowledge of context to make sense of why a movement that championed equal rights would, paradoxically, ask one of its main supporters to leave. It was crucial for Civil Rights leaders to build support from a variety of groups. Allowing a Communist—a gay Communist at that—to be associated with the movement would, in Andrew’s words, "spook everyone." Few other students we interviewed made these connections. Instead, they saw Rustin’s treatment as "unfair" and questioned whether the movement was "hypocritical."

Andrew, on the other hand, does something quite different. He pauses at this unexpected detail, and rather than issuing judgments about the fairness of Rustin’s expulsion, he uses this information to imagine a different time: an America rabidly paranoid of Communists and viciously antagonistic to gays. For Andrew, the unexpected is an invitation to historical thought rather than a signal to issue a quick condemnation. By engaging in contextualization, Andrew is able to see how these actions might have been perceived to someone living in the 1950s, not the world of today.