The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
On February 4, 2013, our nation paid tribute to Rosa Parks on the centennial of her birth. Just over seven years prior, we collectively mourned her passing with much public attention including large turnouts in Montgomery, Washington, D.C., and Detroit. Parks was the first woman to lie in state under the U.S. Capitol’s rotunda and the second African American to do so. A statue of her is slated to be placed in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall just off of the rotunda in the upcoming days. Clearly Rosa Parks is a heroine of mythical proportions. Perhaps much of her legacy has been entrapped in that same mythology as well. Most Americans know that she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in December of 1955. What is often overlooked is her decades of activism both before and after the famous incident that sparked the 381 day Bus Boycott. Parks is often painted as a meek and mild seamstress who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to remain seated and consequently launch the civil rights movement. This oversimplification overlooks her many courageous efforts and sacrifices and her deeply felt convictions concerning human equality.
On the centennial of her birth date a new biography was released that goes a long way toward correcting the common misconceptions and that also fills in the many gaps in our understanding of Rosa Parks’s contributions and her living legacy. Jeanne Theoharis (political science, Brooklyn College) offers a vigorously researched account that while academic is also quite accessible to interested readers of high school age and above.
The reader learns that Parks was steeped in activist thinking at an early age. She grew up with her mother and her grandparents. Her grandfather was a zealous follower of Marcus Garvey and discussions on revolutionary thinking were frequent in the household. Parks and her husband, Raymond Parks, fought hard to free the Scottsboro Boys who were falsely charged with the rape of two white women. They were also active in the Montgomery NAACP where Rosa Parks served as secretary. All of this activity and more occurred before her refusal to give up her seat on the bus.
The author also includes Parks’s own words to illustrate how she was far from meek and mild. A young Rosa would often sit on the front porch with her grandfather who kept a rifle nearby in case the Klan would show up. Parks was quoted as saying, “I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer.” Her grandmother worried that she would get killed before age 20, if she continued with such talk. A young white man taunted her and she threatened him back with a brick. “I would be lynched rather than be run over by them.” When a white man tried to assault her, she later responded, “How I hated all white people, especially him. I would never stoop so low as to have anything to do with him—if he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body, he was welcome but he would have to kill me first.”
The reader learns that on the day after her defiant refusal to give up her seat, several African American ministers including the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy and the, then, relatively unknown Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to help manage the Bus Boycott. Mrs. Parks, herself, worked hard to uphold the boycott while she also experienced many death threats to herself and her family that went on well beyond the boycott. Rosa and Raymond Parks moved to Detroit in 1957.
Even though her endeavors for equal rights in Alabama are largely (and after-the-fact) associated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his non-violent approach to equal rights, her work in Detroit lined up more closely with the black power ideology and left her open to numerous charges of her being “Un-American.” For 20 years Parks worked in the Detroit office of the African American U.S. Representative John Conyers. She continued her life-long efforts to promote the respect of human equality. She continued to speak (slowing down only in the 1970s for a “moment” while illness ravaged and claimed her family).
One other factor that may have played up the false image of her being a meek “accidental heroine” (The New York Times), is the fact that she was personally shy. Regardless of how many honors and accolades she received, she would always appear shy and soft-spoken. Reporters had to ask Parks their questions specifically and directly. A lifetime of death threats could be a main factor as well.
If you have always admired Rosa Parks, you will admire her even more after reading The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Check out this new biography and celebrate Rosa Parks.
Submitted by David Blake