“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks”
Author: Jeanne Theoharis
Publisher: Beacon Press
Price: $27.95 (Cloth)
The author of this new biography of Rosa Parks begins by addressing an obvious concern: don’t we already know, if not all there is to know, then at least all we need to know, about the life of Rosa Parks?
Her answer is a convincing no.
First, the two biographical accounts that have been done are incomplete for different reasons.
The historian Douglas Brinkley published “Rosa Parks: A Life,” in 2000, but this was in Penguin Lives, a series of popular, pocket-sized, short, American biographies with no footnotes, no documentation. Jim Haskins, the Demopolis native, worked with Parks on her autobiography, “Rosa Parks: My Story” (1988), but this was in a series intended for young readers.
Theoharis’s is the first full, authoritative treatment of Mrs. Parks and, as one reads, it becomes clear that much about her life has never been examined at all, and a good deal of what we know is skewed, in different directions for different reasons.
Theoharis writes of the “two myths of Rosa Parks” and the motives for their propagation.
The myth promoted by the civil rights movement, she suggests, is of the foot-sore, mild-mannered seamstress who on December 1, 1955, tired after a long day of work, just decided spontaneously not to give up her seat on the bus. This presents her as lady-like, pious, gentle, even meek, not angry or militant, just a fed-up human being, and this is partly true.
The myth promoted by the segregationist establishment is of a cunning NAACP plant, having been trained at the “Commie” Highlanders School in Monteagle, Tennessee, waiting for her opportunity. Of course, this too is a distortion.
Theoharis suggests that the truth lies in-between: Parks was often later quoted saying “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” There was not exactly a plan in place, but she was ready.
A further goal of Theoharis is to widen our focus.
Sparking the bus boycott at the age of 42 was definitely not the only rebellious moment of Parks’ 92 years.
We learn here of her decades-long involvement with civil rights before the bus boycott, of her work in voter registration and as secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, working with E.D. Nixon, who was on the job in Montgomery years before Rev. King. This was a “difficult, dangerous, and ultimately demoralizing period” with little progress. “There was nothing inevitable” about the success of the 382-day boycott, Theoharis says, but, over many years, the ground had been prepared.
There are several histories of the boycott itself but, oddly, Theoharis never mentions works by Alabamians Wayne Flynt, Wayne Greenhaw or Frye Gaillard. Her method was to avoid secondary writings and do her research in letters, journals, newspapers of the period and in extensive interviews with anyone who knew Mrs. Parks. But she does summarize the boycott well, stressing how it was not just an organizational challenge, getting hundreds to work in cars and taxis; it was a war.
The houses of E.D. Nixon, Dr. King, Rev. Abernathy and Rev. Graetz were dynamited. Parks and her husband, Raymond, lost their jobs, as did many organizers of the boycott.
Resistance was fierce. When the White Citizens Council in Montgomery was formed in 1955, “under the leadership of a group of white lawyers,” it began with a membership of less than 100 and “skyrocketed to fourteen thousand members within three months.” The mayor, Tacky Gayle, according to Parks, publicly and proudly joined.
Year of economic hardship for Parks followed. Much of that could have been eased by the treasuries of the Movement, but it didn’t happen. She was cited as icon, but as a female was not included in the leadership. Theoharis has a good deal to say about the classism and sexism in the Movement. Positions with salaries went to the educated, the better-spoken and the male.
Even though it had been suggested that the event be called “Rosa Parks Day,” since Parks had started it all, no women were asked to speak at the March on Washington in 1963 and, after the rally, “no women got to be part of the delegation that met with members of the Kennedy administration.”
In Montgomery, Parks had received countless death threats, and the most vile and distressing phone calls until, finally, it seemed wise to move to Detroit where she stayed active in the struggle for nearly fifty more years. In many ways she was more radical than ever.
In Detroit, the races were segregated not in public transportation but in some restaurants and hospitals, and especially in housing. Parks fought for equal rights in those spheres, both privately and as an administrative assistant to Congressman John Conyers, who recognized her abilities and added her to his staff.
She espoused the Black Power movement, Black Studies in schools and Black Nationalism. After all, her grandfather had been a follower of Marcus Garvey.
New to me were her long-held positions on activism and confrontation. Non-violence, she felt, was effective in mass movements, and King was wise to adopt that stance. On the personal level, however, nonviolence “could be mistaken for cowardice.” The gentle seamstress and her husband kept a gun and she believed strongly in self-defense.
Toward the end of her life when asked who her hero was, she replied not Dr. King, but Malcolm X, for his dignity, his “boldness and clarity” and pride in his race.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”