|A new biography penned by Jeanne Theoharis sheds light on the life and struggle of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, above, pictured with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the background. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Rosa Parks, who would have turned 100 this month, is certainly one of the most celebrated figures in black history.
While everyone knows the story of how she stood up to segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College, says that few appreciate — or even know about — the fullness of Parks’ activism throughout her 92-year life.
Theoharis argues that the legend of Parks as a quiet and apolitical seamstress has eclipsed the reality of Parks’ relentless dedication to the Civil Rights Movement, and the tremendous suffering she endured as a result. So to correct decades of mythologizing, Theoharis has authored the first-ever comprehensive biography of Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Parks was born in Tuskegee, Ala. in 1913, into an environment of acute racial violence. Her grandfather, born into slavery, was a supporter of the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, and frequently sat outside the house at night with his rifle to ward off the KKK. Parks often joined him.
Parks’ first real encounter with activism, however, occurred as a teenager when she met Raymond Parks, the man who would become her husband. When the two met, Raymond, a longtime member of the NAACP, was organizing on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys, the famous case of nine black youth who were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of two white women.
It took several years for Parks herself to join the NAACP — she had thought it was only open to men — but during her first meeting, she was elected secretary of the Montgomery branch.
In the early 1940s, she organized to get black people registered to vote, and managed to get herself registered despite numerous poll tests and taxes. She cast her first ballot in the 1945 Alabama gubernatorial race, making her one of the few African Americans at the time to have done so.
As Parks’ prominence grew, she took on leadership roles with the NAACP at the state level — where she pushed for anti-lynching legislation and documented violence against black people in the South — and co-founded the NAACP Youth Council.
In the years leading up to Parks’ 1955 arrest, Montgomery buses were the scene of a number of altercations between black passengers and white drivers. Parks herself had been kicked off several buses for refusing to re-board in the back after paying in the front. But tensions heated up early in 1955, when 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat for a white woman, and was arrested and dragged off the bus by police.
Nine months later, Parks took the same stand. These acts of resistance were dangerous, Theoharis points out. “Even though we always say that Parks is so courageous, sometimes we don’t pay attention to how courageous it was,” she says.
Bus drivers carried guns, and armed police officers weren’t afraid to shoot black passengers. Parks’ neighbor — a World War II veteran — had been killed for refusing to board in the back, and as Parks later said about her own resistance: “I didn’t even know if I would get off the bus alive.”
Parks, of course, did survive, and her arrest — which Theoharis calls “the final straw” for the black community — launched the Montgomery bus boycott. It was then that the myth of Parks as the “quiet seamstress” first took shape. As white segregationists accused Parks of being a Communist and an NAACP plant as a way to de-legitimize her activism, leaders of the boycott, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, tried to ‘background her political history’ to ‘keep the movement safe,’” says Theoharis.
By casting her as an old woman without politics, Montgomery leaders made Parks the sympathetic figure they needed to galvanize a movement. But this wasn’t the entire reason — Theoharis also notes that her gender led people to overlook her past organizing and leadership skills.
While the boycott was a success — it led to the dismantling of segregation on Montgomery buses and the broader Civil Rights Movement across the South — for Parks, it led to enormous suffering. She received constant death threats, she and her husband immediately lost their jobs and neither one of them ever found work in Montgomery again. Even black organizations such as the NAACP refused to hire her. These stresses led to Parks’ deteriorating health, and without money, she was unable to get medical treatment.
By 1957, the Parks saw no other option but to leave Alabama and seek better fortunes in the North.
The couple moved to Detroit, but was still plagued by death threats and unemployment.
“That’s one of the other myths about Parks,” says Theoharis. “It’s not like white Northerners embraced her either.”
Parks called Detroit “the northern promised land that wasn’t.”
It wasn’t until 1965 — a full decade after her bus arrest — that Parks found a full-time job, working in the office of the newly elected black congressman, John Conyers. Parks continued her activism, which included pushing for a federal holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and protesting South African apartheid, until her death in 2005.
By the 1990s, she had become a national hero, and the myth of Parks as the quiet seamstress who inadvertently launched the Civil Rights Movement had “taken on a life of its own,” says Theoharis, who compares this image with the “fuzzy, dreamy version” of King after his death.
While this caricature of Parks started with the Movement itself, Theoharis says that today, “it’s about putting all this history in the past.” And by putting the entirety of Parks’ story in the past, her lifetime of progressive politics, the country’s dismissal of her and the racial injustice that still exists today are ignored, Theoharis points out.
“Certain interests benefit from a vision of the Civil Rights Movement that says, ‘Look at how great America is, we had this problem, but we [fixed it] ourselves,’” she says. “The myth of Parks and King strips them of the fullness of what they believed, what they did and what it takes — and makes us miss what we can do today.”