June 18, 2013
Rosa Parks: A Life
Posted on Feb 27, 2013
By Gabriel Thompson
After marrying, Parks got involved with the NAACP. She became secretary of the Montgomery chapter and worked with E.D. Nixon, an autodidact and local activist who became the chapter’s president. The pair spent much of the 1940s transforming the NAACP into a fighting organization, helped along by Ella Baker, one of the movement’s greatest strategists. Parks spent much of her time traveling the state to document and protest violence against blacks, the kind of work that usually goes nowhere and requires an almost superhuman optimism. Several years later, Parks organized the NAACP’s youth council, which protested segregation and included among its members a young teen named Claudette Colvin. Nine months before Parks’ arrest, Colvin would be booked for refusing to move to the back of a bus. Colvin was a brash teenager—and pregnant by a married man—and leaders were less willing to rally to her cause and launch a boycott.
The myth of Parks as apolitical, then, can be quickly discarded. Indeed, the summer before her arrest she attended a two-week workshop at the interracial Highlander Folk School in Tennessee whose topic was “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.” But there’s another myth concerning the “spontaneous” nature of the boycott that Theoharis demolishes. The boycott was in fact a long time coming. In 1954, Jo Ann Robinson, president of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council, sent a letter to the mayor that diplomatically warned of a boycott if the buses remained segregated. When Parks was arrested a year and a half later, the WPC—which had been eagerly awaiting such a development—sprung into action, printing and distributing thousands of notices announcing a boycott. Like much of the civil rights movement, the boycott was driven by women through and through: sparked by Parks, called for by the WPC and made possible by the broad networks that female activists had created throughout the city.
Yet at nearly every turn, as Theoharis skillfully recounts, female leaders were marginalized. During a mass meeting on the first night of the boycott, a string of men took to the stage to speak, but despite calls from the crowd, Parks was never allowed to say a word. “You’ve said enough,” she was told. Not much had changed eight years later at the March on Washington, when not a single woman would address the crowd. Organizers defended the decision by explaining that choosing any one woman would alienate others. “The idea that multiple women might speak was too far-fetched to contemplate,” Theoharis observes.
Parks was no doubt angered at such slights, but her loyalty to the movement—and her tendency to keep some thoughts private—caused her to air criticism in an oblique manner. “I think everyone spoke but me,” is how Parks remembered the mass meeting in Montgomery. About the exclusion of women from addressing the crowd at the March on Washington, she told fellow activist Daisy Bates that she hoped for a “better day coming.”
Here is where the personality of Parks can make for frustrating reading. She was bright; she was a keen observer; and she possessed both uncommon guts and a deeply rooted sense of self-worth. Her activism too was far to the left of what is commonly assumed: She cited Malcolm X as her hero and supported a number of Black Power causes in Detroit, where she would finally enjoy some measure of economic stability while serving as an administrative assistant for Congressman John Conyers. But throughout her long life, she never fully opened up (unless, of course, within the unseen documents held by Guernsey’s). She was, as Theoharis writes, “a kind, unassuming woman, raised in the church and in the Southern traditions of good manners and public dissemblance.” A thoroughly political actor, she did precisely the opposite of most politicians by risking much and talking little. We may never know the intimate contours of her thoughts, or exactly what she went through—“There’s plenty I have never told,” she once admitted to a reporter—but we know what she gave us, and that’s more than enough.
Gabriel Thompson has written for The New York Times, New York, The Nation and Mother Jones. His most recent book is “Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do.”
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