What we know about Rosa Parks is challenged and illuminated in this brilliant biography which shines a light on her intersectional activism — a history much diluted within the grand narrative of the Civil Rights movement.
Think a second about what you know about Rosa Parks. You probably know that she’s from Alabama, worked as a seamstress, and about her protests as part of the Montgomery bus boycott — a whole of her activist life as summed up in many of our school history books. If you’ve probed her history a bit deeper, you may have learned of her work with the NAACP before the boycott and how she helped build a case against Recy Taylor’s rapists. And, if you’re like me, you may have heard conjecture that Rosa Parks’ refusal to get up from her seat on that most revered day was orchestrated by the NAACP and not the narrative that she was a tired woman who wanted to rest her feet. That Claudette Colvin had protested in this way before Rosa had but was dismissed as a representative for the movement based on respectability standards that the NAACP enforced. Jeanne Theoharis and Brandy Colbert, the authors of this biography, would have you know that much of this is true. However, unlike what we’ve been taught, these facts fail to touch even a third of the rich and rebellious life that Rosa Parks led.
It is incredibly tempting to present the information shared within this tome as did you know questions, chronicling the profound persistence and patient impatience with which Parks pursued racial, sexual, and economic justice. Justice she pushed for long before and after the activism she became famous for on the behalf of people like her and those she would never meet. What stands out most in the biography is the way she persevered in this advocacy most of her life through fear and hopelessness that white supremacy enforces to keep people from doing so. She was fastidious in noting that her success in the bus boycott was due to the years of work put in by herself and others. Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to be moved on the Montgomery buses — the instance she is most famous for was not even the first time she had protested similarly — nor are her mug shots or pictures on the bus from that particular day. Black people refusing to be moved when bus drivers forced Jim Crow laws were so ubiquitous in the city that the cops who arrested her were surprised when the driver of her bus pressed charges – an ordeal that did not garner any interest from the press. People like Hilliard Brooks died protesting bus segregation in Montgomery previously, so Rosa’s case was not even the most dire of circumstances. Yet, her relationship with the Montgomery head of the NAACP meant that he was the one who bailed her out of jail and led the search for a lawyer to represent her case. Their relationships with the press meant that the case garnered much more attention, especially when it began to infuriate the middle to upper class white supremacist group, White Citizens’ Council.
Parks was increasingly mystified by the rallying of the Black community around the case who set forth a successful citywide bus boycott. Her experience in civil rights advocacy in the Black community of Montgomery had disappointed her time and time again. Out of a sense of protection and fear, most Black families avoided involvement in any protests or social activities that would bring violence to their doorsteps. Even organizations like the NAACP tended to shut out members who pushed for meaningful change and activism, tending to debate responses to a topic until it was no longer politically expedient for them to engage with it. Upon Martin Luther King, Jr.’s move to town, he reflected on the “appalling lack of unity” of Black people in Montgomery standing up for civil rights. This reality contributed to the profound loneliness Parks felt when the only support she found on the evening of the protest was a fellow bus rider who told her family she needed to be bailed out.
Lack of unity in activism was not the only barrier Parks faced in the civil rights movement. Black women were continually kept from front-facing roles in movement despite being the primary drivers of it. The book expounds on the many ways that Black women professors printed and distributed pamphlets about the boycott, how Black women domestic workers protested and boycotted, and how both groups led community organizing unprompted. These intrepid women often suffered major consequences for their actions and were likely spurred to push for deeper, longer-lasting change than the Black men we recognize as leaders of the movement ever did.
Furthermore, class divisions within the Black community also kept these groups from hiring Rosa Parks or her husband for available clerical positions despite knowing the financial straits they were in — both had been fired from their jobs after her case gained national attention — because they weren’t college educated. In fact, it was shame that prompted church groups to fundraise money for their move once they could no longer afford to live in Montgomery and had to live with her family in Detroit. Sadly, the Parks fared scarcely better in Detroit than they had in Montgomery. There, Rosa Parks continued to be ignored by leadership and press, primarily gaining access to activist space through her own volition, occasionally gaining requests for insight by younger activists. Parks’ activism was a lifelong endeavor. In her later years, she supported the Black Power movement and was an admirer of Malcolm X, who called her a hero and she had the fortune of meeting.
Overall, I found this young reader’s version of Theoharis’ original biography of Rosa Parks a well-rounded, powerfully written, and fast-paced biography of a history figure who deserves more respect on her name. Bookshelves for readers of all ages will be much improved by adding this book to their collection. Readers of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks are sure to find compelling themes like: the most shy of us are often the most observant and have a place in activism; realizing the importance of history while it’s being made; complacency has always been an obstacle within our own communities as much as it has been with oppressors — no fight is completely unique; the necessity of teaching Black history to young people as frequently as possible; and that even historical activists were people who got scared, tired, and wanted to go home but kept pushing to inspire their own calls for justice.