The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

/ posted in: Reading

Rosa Parks is known to history for her actions on one night in December 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.  Her arrest set off the year long boycott of the Montgomery buses which jump-started the civil right movement in the south.

But, Rosa Parks was a life-long activist who didn’t like having her life defined by her actions on one night.  She wasn’t the “tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat” like her legend says.  This book tries to set the record straight.

Parks felt strongly about segregation since she was a child.  It concerned her parents who felt that she was likely to be injured for saying something to white people.  She remembered wanting to defend her mother was she was harassed on a bus.

Rosa Parks was active in Montgomery, Alabama organizations.  She was the secretary of the NAACP.  However, her ambitions were limited by being female and working class at a time was most of the civil right leadership was male and middle class.  She always enjoyed working with young people so she started a youth branch of the NAACP.  Despite a decade of activism, nothing was changing and she was demoralized.  She was able to attend an activists training session at the Highlander school in Tennessee.  She was inspired by the talk of others but said that she didn’t see much hope for anything to happen in Montgomery because the black people couldn’t agree on anything.

Six months later she was arrested.  She wasn’t the first.  Just that year two other women were arrested for refusing to move on the buses.  Rosa was involved in trying to get a movement together around the arrests but each of the cases were deemed inappropriate to base a movement around.  Either they had violently resisted arrest or just weren’t the right sort of person that people could rally behind – i.e. pregnant, unmarried teenager.  Rosa didn’t go out seeking a confrontation but when it happened she probably knew she had an opportunity.

Black people were required to move for white passengers if there were seats available for them to move to farther back in the bus.  In this case, the bus driver made a whole row of black women move to give one white man a seat.  There were no other seats available so this was a clear violation of the law.  She later said that she wished some of the other women had refused with her to give her some company.

A totally staged picture with a journalist

When the boycott started both Rosa and Raymond Parks lost their jobs.  They received near constant threats. Rosa was paraded around as a symbol but not allowed to speak at rallies.  That honor went to the ministers, including a newcomer named Martin Luther King.  She did speak around the country but generally was not paid.  Things got so desperate for the family that King appealed for funds repeatedly for her.  Eventually, they moved to Detroit in hopes of getting jobs.

Things weren’t much better there until she helped with a congressional campaign for John Conyers.  (She called King and told him he had to come speak on Conyers’ behalf. It was the only political endorsement he made.)  Conyers gave her a job in his Detroit congressional office that she held until retirement. Even here she still had to deal with threatening phone calls from people who didn’t like that Conyers had hired such a “troublemaker.”

She was active in progressive politics her whole life.  She attended all the major events.  She supported the Black Power movement and the anti-apartheid campaigns.  Her quiet demeanor let her slip into the background and not everyone remembered who she was.  (She was not invited to the anniversary celebrations of the bus boycott for several decades.)  But those who did know her valued her support.

“You can’t minimize her validation,” historian John Bracey observed.  Her backing lent legitimacy.  “If Mrs. Parks is there, it must be okay” was the message her presence signaled.  …  She was an example.  She could have retired, said ‘I’m not in this, don’t talk to me.’ But she steadily kept coming out.

When she was 81 she was violently mugged in her house by a young black man.

Hurt and badly shaken she called Elaine Steele, who lived across the street and had become a key source of support. Steele called the police, who took fifty minutes to arrive. Meanwhile, the word went out that someone had mugged Parks. “All of the thugs on the west side went looking for him,” Ed Vaughn recalled, “and they beat the hell out of him.”

Don’t mess with Mrs. Parks.