May 21, 2013
Rosa Parks: A Life
Posted on Feb 27, 2013
By Gabriel Thompson
“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks”
In 1960, Jet magazine sent a correspondent to interview Rosa Parks. Five short years had passed since Parks had famously refused to move to the back of the bus, with her arrest triggering a series of events—the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the elevation of Martin Luther King Jr. to the national stage—that would radically reshape the 20th century. But when the Jet reporter caught up with Parks she was living in Detroit, described as a “tattered rag of her former self—penniless, debt-ridden, ailing with stomach ulcers and a throat tumor, compressed into two rooms with her husband and mother.”
If the image is jarring, it is a testament to how little we actually “know” about one of the best-known women of American history. The boycott had been a remarkable victory, but it offered precious little relief for Parks. She had been fired for her activism and was supporting her husband, who had suffered a nervous breakdown and turned to drink under the stress of constant death threats. Though she had sparked the boycott and tirelessly traveled the country to raise funds in support, civil rights leaders in Montgomery, Ala.—unable to consider women equal partners in the struggle—never offered her a job. And so eight months after the city’s bus lines were integrated, Parks and her family, who had called Montgomery home for 25 years, fled to Detroit, never to return.
Such details clang against the conventional narrative of Parks. Applauded today by politicians of all stripes—this alone should arouse considerable suspicion—her life has become a sort of chicken soup for the American soul, a feel-good story that is short on details and heavy on sentimentality. Even the most pertinent fact, her radical and lifelong activism, is discarded in this telling. Instead, Parks is depicted as an apolitical figure approaching sainthood in her purity: humble, quiet and spontaneously moved to take a stand when confronted by a glaring injustice. If anyone has ever needed “extrication from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies,” as Christopher Hitchens memorably remarked about George Orwell, it is Rosa Parks.
Nearly 60 years after the boycott, we now have our first scholarly biography of Parks. “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” written by Brooklyn College professor Jeanne Theoharis, seeks to reveal a character that “continues to be hidden in plain sight, celebrated and paradoxically relegated to be a hero for children.” Theoharis, who previously studied civil rights activism in the North, dives deep into the archives to return with a nuanced if somewhat plodding portrait of a dedicated activist who managed to be both an iconic figure and an everywoman of the civil rights movement.
For a biographer, Parks is far from an ideal subject. A collection of her papers has been caught up in a legal fight and is now in the possession of Guernsey’s Auctioneers, where they sit in a Manhattan warehouse. (Unforgivably, the auction house has refused scholarly access to the documents.) There is also Parks’ own sense of decorum, which prevented many of her private feelings from finding public expression. “My problem is—I don’t particularly enjoy talking about anything,” she once admitted. During interviews she tended to carefully choose words and deflect attention, repeating the same stories when asked the same questions. “Finding and hearing Rosa Parks has not been easy,” Theoharis notes. When the book hits dead spots—and there are several—it is usually because the voice of Parks refuses to pop. As a black woman who cut her activist teeth in Alabama in the 1930s, she learned early on to say only what needed to be said. “Is it worthwhile to reveal the intimacies of the past life?” she wrote on a scrap of paper sometime after the boycott. “Would the people be sympathetic or disillusioned when the facts of my life are told?”
The facts of Parks’ political life took shape in a working-class family. Her grandfather was militant in his black pride. Born into slavery and beaten regularly as a child, he quite understandably held a “somewhat belligerent attitude toward whites.” After World War I, when Klan terror intensified, he would sit on the porch with his rifle, waiting almost happily for any invaders. Parks would join him on his vigil—“I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer,” she recalled—but Klansmen were smart enough to stay away.
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