Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1955
A new biography of Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis’ “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” revisits the life of the civil rights icon, and argues that the quiet, shy seamstress so well known to elementary schoolchildren is a reductive stereotype. The real Parks was a lifelong activist. From her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, to Detroit, where she moved after the bus boycott, Parks worked tirelessly on behalf of the NAACP and other organizations, and yet had to struggle all her life for recognition and compensation for her efforts. We spoke with Theoharis about the importance of changing the image of the tired lady on the bus.
You discuss in your introduction the difficulties of accessing the full archives relating to Parks' life and work. Can you explain the effect those restrictions had, and how you managed to work within and around them?
Guernsey’s Auctioneers, which is selling Rosa Parks’ effects, has not allowed any scholar to evaluate the papers in that archive. Her papers have sat unsold for five years. This is a significant loss, not only for what it might have offered to my book, but to scholars and students more broadly. It’s hard to imagine auctioning any of Martin Luther King’s papers without a scholar assessing what was there.
To work around this restriction, I searched other archives. I went through the papers Parks donated to Wayne State University; the NAACP Papers at the Library of Congress; the Highlander Folk School Papers; James Haskins’ notes and interviews with Parks for her autobiography; research by Preston Valien, a sociologist at Fisk who sent a team of researchers to Montgomery in the first months of the bus boycott; and many more collections. I read dozens of interviews and oral histories. I combed the black press and conducted scores of interviews with her friends, family, and political comrades to try to give a fuller picture of the span of Parks’ political life. And with all these threads, I began to sew a fuller account of her life.
It's a shock to learn that before your book, there was no full-length scholarly biography of Parks, despite many children's books about her. Was it this omission that led you to write the book? Or did the project grow out of your other research?
I found it shocking; I still do. It seemed like a tremendous oversight – and reflective of the very myths I critique in the book – that Rosa Parks is one of the most famous Americans of the twentieth century but is treated not as a substantive political figure, but as a character in a children’s book. The only book on her was Douglas Brinkley’s small, un-footnoted “Penguin Lives” biography. I think people mistakenly assume we know all there is to know about her.
For me, as a scholar of the civil rights movement in the North, her life in Detroit was particularly compelling. While some historians have started to examine Parks’s political life before the boycott, and the rich story of the origins and maintenance of the boycott itself, this part of her history was completely overlooked. Yet there was so much to tell of her political activities in Motown.
Parks is remarkable for her heroism, but also for her endurance of hardship: her economic struggles, the constant hate attacks, the setbacks to progress. Was it difficult to write about the years – decades, even – of her suffering?
Yes, it was difficult. Despite the fact that Parks has been celebrated for her courage and service, the impact her arrest had on her family and the decade of suffering that ensued is not usually part of the story. She didn’t like to talk about it. I found myself both sad and angry as I tried to piece together what happened and why. The article Jet magazine ran on “the bus boycott’s forgotten woman” in 1960 is devastating: she’s sick, she and her husband have very little money, and they are living in two rooms with her mother. For someone like Parks, who was often too proud to ask for help, this was her way of highlighting the direness of her situation.
What do you think made Rosa Parks so tenacious? How do you think she found the vision and strength to fight for equal rights, when so many people suffered in silence?
Rosa Parks had a kind of resolve that, coupled with her Christian faith, led her to keep going year after year, decade after decade. She also possessed a deep sense of responsibility – if there was something to be done, if she thought something was wrong or untrue, she believed in her responsibility to correct it or take action. She felt the individual had responsibility: Even if you couldn’t necessarily change things, you had the responsibility to register your dissent. So that is what she pushed herself to do.
You chose to focus on Parks’ political rather than personal life in this biography. Yet you also point out that her personal life, particularly her relationship with her husband, Raymond, is very important to her political activity. What made you decide to play down the personal story?
Parks is celebrated as a national hero for her politics, for her courage – so it seemed to me the most important task was to chart and examine that political life and to analyze her courage. Her actions are already used to tell a certain story of America, so my task was to convey a fuller history of her, which ultimately tells a different story. Our extremely limited history of Parks reveals our investment in the popular myths of the civil rights movement: the fable of the quiet seamstress doesn’t ask anything of us. It puts the movement in the past, when in fact Parks kept going, pressing for racial justice and social equality for a half century after her bus stand.
Parks was also a very private person, who found her fame hard to bear, and it seemed to me important to grant her a modicum of privacy in her personal life.
An important running theme of the book is the gender struggle within the civil rights movement. Do you think that Parks’ contributions were downplayed primarily because of her gender, or also because she was a self-effacing person, willing to work behind the scenes?
I think it’s a combination of gender, class, and personality. In terms of the national civil rights movement, the March on Washington for example, women were very much relegated to the backdrop. No women got to speak. Parks was dismayed by the treatment of women at the March. Indeed, Lena Horne and Gloria Richardson were talking to reporters at the March, telling them that the real story was Rosa Parks, she was the one who started it all and she was who they should be interviewing – and they got sent back to their hotel before the march was over. Richardson attributes this to their outspokenness.
Parks also never got to go to college, and many civil rights organizations only wanted to hire college-educated people. Finally, she was a shy person who did not seek out the limelight. With all the attention paid to the Montgomery bus boycott, she actively sought to keep the spotlight off herself.
How would you like to see the popular story of Rosa Parks change to reflect her “rebellious life”? Would you change what’s taught in schools, for instance?
Absolutely. There are many things I would add: how long and hard Parks and others struggled in the decade before the boycott, how lonely and dangerous that NAACP work was, and how worn-down and dispirited she felt in the years leading up to the boycott. I would emphasize that Parks was not middle class, as she came to be seen, but working class and living in the projects when she was arrested; that her bus stand came at a great cost to her family; and that she continued her political activities for nearly a half century in Detroit, in the North, and alongside the Black Power movement. I think this would make her an even more compelling figure for young people and make her legacy seem more approachable.