The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks

The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks + Beacon Press + 303 pages

“A tired seamstress” is how we remember Rosa Parks in our national imagination. Accordingly the tired seamstress was not a troublemaker just a simple woman who in a single act of defiance launched the modern civil rights movement. The political history of Rosa Parks is rescued from the convenient narrative and situated with the broad context in a new biography. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis is the first book to offer a deeper and intimate understanding of the ‘mother of the civil rights movement’. Mrs. Parks—like all African Americans in the apartheid South—suffered the daily indignities of segregation and subjugation. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger in accordance to Alabama’s Jim Crow laws was the radical act of a politically savvy organizer.

Theoharis takes the media to tasks for its characterizations of Parks as a “humble”, “quiet”, “dignified”, “soft-spoken”, and “accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement”. By excavating Parks from her personal political convictions and the black freedom struggle, writ large, served to create a respectable image palpable to American self-image. The power of the politics of respectability cannot to be lost.

Parks was not the first in cities through the segregated South to refuse to give up her seat. More pointedly she was not the first to do so in Montgomery. Nine months before, Mrs. Parks’ act, Claudette Colvin—then a teenager—refused her sit to a white passenger. Colvin was inspired by the courage of her foremothers. “I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, ‘Sit down girl!’ I was glued to my seat,” she later told Newsweek.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), briefly, considered using Colvin’s case to challenge the segregation laws. At the time, Colvin was active in the NAACP’s Youth Council, which was advised by Rosa Parks. Some black leaders believed she was too young and too dark-skinned to be an effective symbol of injustice for the rest of the nation. Local civil rights leaders continued to debate moving forward with her case was worth contesting. That summer Colvin got pregnant. The politics of respectability demanded eliminated an unwed teenage mother from the role of race representative. On the buckle of the Bible belt, Colvin’s pregnancy would have attracted too much negative attention in a public legal battle. The movement needed a respectable candidate to challenge the segregationist busing policy.

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Born Rosa Louise McCauley, racial pride and political mobilization were a part of Parks’ life early on. Her parents supported Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which advocated black self-reliance and political independence. As newlyweds, she and her husband, Raymond Park campaigned for the release of the Scottsboro Boys—nine African American boys, falsely, accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. In 1943, 12 years before her famous stand Rosa Parks bravely refuses to give up her seat and is ejected from a racially segregated bus. She then tries to register to vote and is denied. After joining the local NAACP, she would become its secretary and labor in relative obscurity. In the aftermath of World War II, Parks received certificate to vote after three attempts.

For over decade she worked with noted local NAACP firebrand, E.D. Nixon, to transform the Montgomery chapter into an activist chapter. Parks spearheaded the chapter’s voter registration efforts Parks was trained in social justice organizing at historic Highlander Center—the training ground for activists working against racial oppression and for union rights throughout the South.

By 1947, Parks’ stature had grown so in the Alabama civil rights community that she was elected to serve on the state wide executive committee of the NAACP. Courageously, Parks and Nixon challenged the governor’s negative response to the federal anti-lynching legislation. On May 31st, 1955, Supreme Court ordered desegregation of the public schools. A few months later in August, Rosa Parks meets Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. —the twenty-six year old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. That summer a 16-year-old African American boy—Emmitt Till was savagely beaten and murder in Mississippi for flirting with a white woman.

Mamie Till—demanded that the funeral was open casket. “I want the world to see what they did to my baby”, Mamie Till recalled in the aftermath of her son’s lynching. Over 30,000 people came to view Emmitt Till’s disfigured face and witness the courage of his mother. It could be argued that Till’s funeral was the first major march of the modern civil rights movement. Around the same time a young black minister in Montgomery suffered the same fate for the same alleged crime. Parks’ recalled that the case was swept under rug to preserve Alabama’s sense of itself a place of racial peace. In November of that year, the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation on buses and all waiting rooms that involved in interstate travel.

On December 1st, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give her seat on the bus to a white passenger. “I could not have faced my people if I moved”, Parks later recalled. The politics of respectability were at work in her arrest. The bus driver noted that she was “prim” and spoke well. Hence, she did not suffer the “manhandling” of Colvin but Parks did not know if she would “make it off the bus alive”. The police arrived and Parks was arrested, fingerprinted, jailed, police and fined $14. A few days later on December 5th, she stood trial and was found guilty of breaking the segregation laws. On December 5th, Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which was organized to protest segregated busing and launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott begins which lasted 381 days.

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The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was laid during her years of organizing blacks to vote and her other work with the NAACP. While Parks was posed and soft-spoken she was not simply a tired seamstress. A child of Garveyites and an admirer of Malcolm X, Parks described her journey as “a life history of rebellious living”. Parks left Alabama and moved to Detroit where she worked for progressive Congressman John Conyers, opposed the Vietnam War, and continued to advocate for racial justice. Rosa Parks was an activist whose quite eloquence was surpassed by her political courage and thanks to Jeanne Theoharis we all know her a little better.

—Rev. Osagyefo Sekou

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