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The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis.

March 3, 2013

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis.  Beacon Press (2013), Hardcover, 360 pages.

An excellent biography of an iconic African-American woman which shatters some of the myths that have developed around her role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Jeanne Theohari has produced a well-researched and well-written biography of Rosa Parks, an important figure in the Civil Rights Movements in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s.  Up to this time, no such authoritative biography has existed for tracking her whole life.  Although most historians were aware of her lifelong commitment to the struggle for racial equality, she has remained a misunderstood icon rather than a real person to most Americans.  This biography provides both historians and general readers with an overview of her life and new insights into how the Civil Rights Movement functioned.

Rosa McCauley grew up poor in rural Alabama, but she grew up in a proud family that valued protest and education.  While her mother was teaching school, she often stayed with her grandparents.  In those years, her grandfather was an admirer of Marcus Garvey, proponent of the Black Nationalism and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League.  With Rosa at his side, he sometimes sat up all night with his shotgun to protect his family from those who might seek to harm his family.  When Rosa married, she chose Jackson Parks, a man actively working in defense of the Scottsboro boys.  Living in Montgomery in the 1940s and 1950s, she became a leading figure in the local NAACP, working consistently to collect information about racial injustices, including the rape of black women by white men.  She also sought to organize others, especially the young people whom she saw as the hope of the future. In 1955, she attended a workshop at Highlander, a center in Tennessee for grassroots organizers, black and white, where she experienced equality with whites for the first time.  A few months later, she deliberately got herself arrested as a protest to the humiliating treatment that blacks suffered at the hands of bus drivers.  She was tired of being humiliated.

Just as Mrs. Parks was developing her own political savvy, racial tensions in Montgomery were moving toward a breaking point.  The city buses were often the location where the “guerilla war” was taking place.  African Americans were dependent on the buses, but white drivers had the discretion to humiliate and beat those who refused to follow their often arbitrary demands.  Blacks had appealed to the city and the company, but any who protested on the buses risked life and limb.  Meanwhile Mrs. Parks in the NAACP and the Women’s Political Caucus, led by faculty at the local black college, were laying the ground for protest.  Class divisions within the black community hampered action however.

The most exciting portion of the book is the familiar story of Park’s arrest and the boycott that followed, succeed, and mark the rise of the civil rights as a national movement.  Theoharis skillfully describes how and why the inaccurate image was created of Mrs. Parks as an apolitical seamstress who simply got tired. Such an image was nonthreatening to whites, the only explanation I had ever considered.  Within the black community, it also worked to unify different factions.  Despite her working-class background and allies, she was well-known and accepted by the better-educated professional class of blacks. She was a person all admired.  Also important was the need to avoid calling attention to her connection with the NAACP, which many white Alabamians equated with “outside agitators” and communism.  In her forties at the time, she was present as the “mother” of the movement but not included in decision making.  The leaders were generally men in their 20s, like Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, who would later gain national acclaim.

Gender dynamics were present in the bus boycott and the civil rights movement more generally.  Although the women bore the brunt of the boycott, a small group of men quickly appeared as its leaders.  Theoharis sensitively explains how they helped turn Mrs. Parks into an icon rather than a leader and to the continuation of that image after the boycott.  In addition, Parks was never one to seek power or publicity about herself.  Like other African-American women of her time, her reticence and respectability were ways of protecting her privacy.  Although capable of acting publicly with determination, she preferred to work behind the scenes.

Although the bus boycott that emerged following her arrest was successful in changing Montgomery and in igniting the larger civil rights movement, Parks suffered from it emotionally and economically.  She and her husband lost their jobs and  descended into poor health and real poverty.  While some individuals tried to help, divisions within the movement meant that she was never given a paying job, adequate financial support, or a voice in the directions taken.  Death threats and the bombing of the homes of her friends took a toll on her husband and her mother as well.  Unable to find stability in Montgomery, the family moved to Detroit where relatives lived.  The first years there were hard, because finding decent employment was not easy.  Parks realized that racial conditions in could be as bad in a northern city as they were in the south and continued her activism.  When John Conyers was elected to Congress, he hired her for his local office.  There she once again had a base for investigating the problems of other blacks and working to resolve their problems.

Theoharis has made an important contribution to our understanding of Rosa Parks and of the civil rights movement.  At times she disagrees with other historians about details, but that doesn’t merit serious attention by general readers. Participants remember incidents differently. Arguing is just how historians refine their interpretations.  Her more expansive depiction of Parks and of gender issues within the movement certainly fits into the professional historians’ understanding.

Last night I watch the unveiling of a statue of Rosa Parks in the capital, and yet again heard her praised by a politician as an icon.  Yes, that is how she was crafted by her allies, but she was much more, as Theoharis’s book tells us.

I strongly recommend this book to readers interested in Parks, in black women, and/or in the civil rights movement.

Other histories which partially overlap with The Rebellious Mrs. Parks may also be of interests to readers.  Here are suggestions for some of the best.

McGuire, Danielle.  At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance—A New History of the Civil Rights Movement.

Robinson, Jo Ann. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It.

Ramsey, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement.

Charron, Katherine. Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark.

Gilmore, Glenda. Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1930-1950.

For an interesting biography of an Australian woman whose activism paralleled Park’s, see

Lake, Marilyn.  Faith: Faith Bandler, The Gentle Activist. [See my review.]

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2013 9:16 am

    I really enjoyed this thorough review. I’m not American and whilst I knew about Rosa Parks and the bus boycott, I wasn’t aware of how much was ‘behind’ the story. I’ll keep a look out for this book.

  2. aartichapati permalink
    March 3, 2013 4:19 pm

    I think it was when I read America’s Women by Gail Collins that I realized just how involved Parks had been in civil rights before making the stand on the bus – it’s unfortunate that now people seem only to know her for that one act. But she was AMAZING, and so deserving of a tribute – great review!

  3. March 3, 2013 6:43 pm

    I love books which show the complicated truths behind the easy-to-swallow versions that we’re usually acquainted with. Thanks for this great review–I will definitely read the book. And my library has this on order, hurray!

  4. March 5, 2013 11:21 am

    I was so amazed when I learned about Rosa Parks history of activism in my American History class in college and realized the inaccuracy of what I had previously been taught about her. I can see why her background was downplayed at the time, but I wish we were taught a more about it now.

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