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Biography dispels myths about legend of Rosa Parks

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 2/28/2013, 11:28 a.m.

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.”