No Meekness Here: Meet Rosa Parks, 'Lifelong Freedom Fighter'

Nov 29, 2015
Originally published on November 30, 2015 2:10 pm

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on bus in Montgomery, Ala. — and changed the course of history.

Her action sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which would eventually lead to the end of legally segregated public transportation.

And for many Americans, Parks is the civil rights icon they love to love: the unassuming seamstress who, supposedly, just got tired one day and unwittingly launched the modern civil rights movement.

But as author Jeanne Theoharis explains in her book, The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks, there was much more to Parks than this simple narrative. She spoke about this with Michel Martin, weekend host of All Things Considered.

Click on the audio link above to hear the interview as it aired, or see below for excerpts from the full, original interview.


Interview Highlights

On the biggest misconception about Rosa Parks

I think we reduce her to the one day on the bus ... and in fact, she is a lifelong freedom fighter, and what it took to do what she did across her life and on that December day was deeply courageous, deeply difficult. And we see that beginning decades before her stand and continuing for decades after.

On how, in addition to civil rights and voting rights, Parks was also an anti-rape activist

Rosa Parks, like many black women, was doing domestic work in her late teens. She's working for a white couple and a white neighbor of theirs is let in the house, gets a drink, puts his hand on her waist. She gets terrified. He's big. He's burly.

She's small, but she resolves to resist. She basically tells him "you can rape my dead body." And we'll see the same kind of resolve in the 1940s. Then she will ... try to bring cases where other black women have been victims of sexual violence or rape.

On what it cost the Parks family to maintain the boycott

She loses her job; her husband loses his job. They never find steady work in Montgomery ever again. So the whole boycott, they are in deep economic trouble. They're getting constant death threats ... Their steady income goes away.

They're never well-off. I think we also have this myth that she's middle-class. They're not middle class. They're living in the Cleveland Courts projects when she makes her bus stand. Their income is cut in half. In fact, it takes 11 years for the Parks to post an annual income equal to what they're making in 1955. They will move to Detroit in 1957 because things are so tough in Montgomery.

On why many of the details of Parks' real story are so little known

The story we're told is a feel-good story: "It was bad, but then people organized, and look how far we've come, look how good we are." It's a story that puts the problem deeply in the past.

And I think what having to see what it took, having to see Rosa Parks and many other people continue for decades ... I mean, Rosa Parks will continue to the end of her life fighting for racial justice, fighting for criminal justice, fighting for a more just foreign policy, fighting for real school desegregation, real change in the curriculum. All these things continue on. But the story that we're told is a happy ending story. It's a story that makes us feel good about how far we've come.

If we want to think about the way it portrays Rosa Parks, it traps her on the bus. It makes her meek ... and we miss the fierceness of Rosa Parks. We miss the perseverance ... We miss who she was and what it took, and what she's asking of us today.

All Things Considered weekend host Michel Martin heads to Montgomery on Dec. 1 to look back on the city's historic bus boycott on its 60th anniversary. The live storytelling event is a part of Martin's Going There series. For more information, visit www.nprpresents.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An important anniversary is coming up Tuesday. It is the 60th anniversary of the action that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. It's Rosa Parks' decision to refuse to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. And for many Americans, that makes Rosa Parks the civil rights icon they love to love. The unassuming seamstress who supposedly just got tired one day and unwittingly launched the modern civil rights movement. But as author Jeanne Theoharis tells us in her deeply-researched biography, Rosa Parks is a much more complex character than the one portrayed on all those black history month calendars. And in fact, she was a committed and courageous activist who may have been preparing for her big moment on the bus for much of her life. Theoharis is the author of the book "The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks." She teaches political science at Brooklyn College. And I asked her what she saw as the biggest misconception about Parks.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: I think we reduce her to that one day on the bus. And in fact, she is a lifelong freedom fighter, and we see that beginning decades before her stand and continuing for decades after.

MARTIN: What were some of the ways that she expressed that? What were some of the things that she did?

THEOHARIS: Well, I think criminal justice is one of the key through lines through her life. And in many ways, her adult political life begins when she meets who describes as the first real activist I ever met, and that is Raymond Parks. She falls in love, they get married. And Raymond is working on the Scottsboro case - nine young men arrested riding the rails. And then their charge turns to rape, and they're quickly convicted and they are sentenced to death. And Rosa Parks will join him in that work, so that's in the early 1930s. She continues doing that work in the 1940s. She is working on issues of voter registration. She's working on issues of desegregation, and so all of that will kind of come together that December evening on the bus.

MARTIN: She was a very dedicated anti-rape activist.

THEOHARIS: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Could you just talk a little bit about that?

THEOHARIS: So Rosa Parks, like many black women, was doing domestic work in her late teens. She's working for a white couple, and a white neighbor of theirs is let in the house, gets a drink, puts his hand on her waist. She gets terrified. He's big, he's burly, she's small, but she resolves to resist. She basically tells him you can rape my dead body. And we'll see the same kind of resolve in the 1940s. Then she will help to sort of try to bring cases where other black women have been victims of sexual violence or rape. And that when she is taken to jail after she's arrested on the bus, there is a woman in jail. That women had been attacked by her boyfriend and her family didn't know where she was. But Rosa Parks will smuggle the number of that woman's brother out of jail that night. So she's even thinking about these broader criminal justice issues when she's in jail that night.

MARTIN: Wow, that's fascinating. One of the other things that you point out in the book though is just how hard it was to maintain that boycott and just how much harassment that Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond endured over the course of that year.

THEOHARIS: Yes. She loses her job, her husband loses his job. They never find steady work in Montgomery ever again. It takes 11 years for the Parks to post an annual income equal to what they're making in 1955.

MARTIN: Why do you think it is that these details are not better known? As I mentioned, our sort of understanding of this episode, it's like it was a spontaneous act. And in all of what people had to go through somehow isn't part of our knowledge of this. Why do you think that is?

THEOHARIS: Well, I think partly there's a feel-good story, right? It was bad, but then people organized and look how far we've come, look how good we are. If we want to think about the way it portrays Rosa Parks, it makes her meek and we miss the fierceness of Rosa Parks, we miss the perseverance, we miss who she was and what it took.

MARTIN: Jeanne Theoharis is the author of "The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks." She's also a distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Professor Theoharis, thank you so much for speaking with us.

THEOHARIS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: And I will be in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday to mark the 60th anniversary of Montgomery bus boycott at an event in cooperation with member station WVAS. We'll talk about Rosa Parks, the history of the civil rights movement and its future. You'll be able to listen online from npr.org. And you can join the conversation on Twitter. Use the hashtag #busboycott60. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.