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The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

by Jeanne Theoharis
(Boston: Beacon Press, 2013. Pp. 295. Illustrations.)

by Nancy Kerstetter

When Rosa Parks remained in her seat on that Montgomery bus on December 1, 1955, she had no inkling of the stir it would cause or the effects that would ripple to become a civil rights movement. Neither did she envision that her remains would lie in state in the United States Capitol when she died 50 years later.

rebellious-life-of-rosa-parks-books-coverRosa Parks, a forward thinking woman, did not have lofty expectations for herself or the consequences of her actions. Get to know her better by reading the well footnoted book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis.

Although Caucasian, Theoharis has the unique perspective of having worked side by side with civil rights activist Julian Bond in an academic setting. She credits Bond with inspiring her to tell Parks’ story. Theoharis is currently professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and author of books and articles on historic and contemporary race politics in the U.S. Some of the book’s content was published previously. Unfortunately, material in some of the chapters is quite repetitive leading one to wonder if a more thorough editing of this book was needed. 

Theoharis strives to look behind the curtain of the public persona to reveal what made Parks tick. Through countless interviews and hours of research, she unearths lesser known stories, quotes and accounts of Parks’ life. She shares these gems with the reader. 

rosa-parks-in-dress“I’d like people to say I’m a person who always wanted to be free and wanted it not only for myself,” stated Parks in 1995 when asked how she would like to be remembered.

Many Americans know Parks as the quiet, diminutive lady with tired feet who refused to give up her bus seat for a white patron. Rosa Parks was not that woman. She was a woman who was tired of being pushed around. By staying seated, she was taking a public stand. Theoharis writes, “This fable—of an accidental midwife without a larger politics—has made Parks a household name but trapped her in the elementary school curriculum...”

The politics of Parks is explored throughout the biography. Since she was in the habit of not volunteering any information that was not asked for, interviewers over the years missed knowing the real Rosa Parks and settled for the fictionalized one. Theoharis divulges the political activist side of Parks that few knew or acknowledged that started years before the 1955 bus incident. She discloses Parks activism prior to meeting Martin Luther King, Jr., and other well known civil rights leaders. Parks was a high school student when she sought ways to express her vision of social changes needed in community. She married Raymond Parks an activist. 

rosa-receives-kissThe author writes a political biography of Parks. She “does not fully capture her community of friends and family ties, her faith and church life, her marriage, her daily activities.” Theoharis leaves that for other biographers. 

Not generally known, the Parks suffered from unsteady income from the week of the bus boycott forward. Lack of work was a constant problem for both of them. Rosa lost her seamstress job. Raymond was made unwelcome at his work. The landlord raised their rent. They were becoming well known, but no one seemed to understand their severe lack of revenue. This problem dogged them the rest of their lives. 

The Parks migrated north to Detroit to join Rosa’s brother and other relatives. Lack of employment shadowed them in the north as well. They found that racism and segregation were alive and well up north, the same as in the south, except in different forms. From time to time Rosa Parks would become discouraged. At such times she would reach deeply into her Christian faith and strong resolve in order to carry on. 

rosa-with-women-groupShe continued to be active in civil rights in many forms, including the Black Power movement. She was a spokesperson, a figurehead, a worker bee and a quiet advocate. She felt that perpetual white resistance to integration and racial equality produced the tone for black militancy to germinate. Some contemporaries recognized her depth. Max Stanford (Muhammad Ahmad) described Parks and other women as “more progressive than the men” and regarding Parks specifically that she was in the movement for the long haul because she “didn’t let anything deter her.”

Let us not leave Rosa Parks’ legacy to live in an elementary storybook setting. Draw her out of the fairy tale and place her firmly in American history annals where she deserves to be placed. Thankfully, Theoharis has contributed to this goal with her political biography of Rosa Parks, rebel with a just cause.

You can obtain this book from your local library, inter-library loan or Amazon as book or Kindle Book.

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