Book Talk: Keep On Keeping On — A Life of Rosa Parks

Rosa McCauley Parks finally got postal justice back on February 4, when the Postal Service issued her stamp (the day was her centennial). That honor was bound to come, for after Parks died in 2005 at the age of 92, she became the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda.

Rosa Parks on the courthouse steps, Montgomery Alabama, 1955

Rosa Parks on the courthouse steps, Montgomery Alabama, 1955

But before you start congratulating America on becoming a post-racial society, read Brooklyn College professor of political science Jeanne Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon), which seethes with cool eloquence — as Parks herself did over a long life of political activism. That Rebellious Life is the first full-dress scholarly Parks life is itself telling, and the author stays loyal to her discipline, focusing on the political and leaving discussion of her friends, family, faith, and daily life as “a task for others.”

Theoharis writes in an exhilarating, let’s-set-the-record-straight mode, as you will gather in her acerbic take, in the final pages, on Parks’ coffin lying beneath the rotunda: “An avalanche of congressmen, senators, and presidents rushed to honor Parks, hoping perhaps that ‘a tired old woman’ lying in the Capitol would cover up the federal travesty of inaction around Hurricane Katrina two months earlier.” Theoharis is referring to the “fable” that Parks’ famous refusal to relinquish her bus seat was due to her being a “simple tired seamstress” after a hard day’s work. Later, Parks would say her bus resistance was “just a regular thing with me and not just that day.” She would also later say, “I didn’t move because I was tired of being pushed around.”

That iconic Look magazine photo of Parks on The Bus (it is now in the Ford Museum in Dearborn) was part of the smoke-and-mirrors media coverage: It was staged — the stern white man behind her was a UPI reporter. It is not included in Rebellious Life.

Theoharis’ thesis is simple: The fateful day of Dec. 1, 1955, was no act of resistance by miraculous immaculate conception. It had been prepared for through two decades of work for racial justice.

Raymond Parks, whom Rosa married in 1932, was, she said, “the first real activist I ever met.” He joined the NAACP in the early ’30s and worked to support the notorious Scottsboro Boys. Both worked for voter registration and anti-lynching legislation and against poll taxes. Bus resistance had begun in Montgomery in 1945 (the system had been segregated since 1900), and Parks was not the first whose resistance drew the police. Parks also attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a training-place for activists, just months before the red-letter day, which evoked a storm of red-baiting from furious segregationists.

Rebellious Life adds some odiously colorful details to the arrest story and the 382-day black bus boycott that ensued. Two examples of the exquisite cruelty of segregation: Black bus patrons had to enter the front door, pay their dime fare, disembark, then re-enter by the back door; when Parks was arrested, she asked for water but was at first denied it — only the jail’s “white” fountain served it. We also learn that the bus driver insisted on Parks’ arrest, not merely the ejection the police would have been happy to perform. (Parks refused to board that driver’s bus for the next 12 years.)  And yes — the courtroom in which Parks eventually appeared was also segregated.

Within a week the Montgomery black community roused to action, led by a 26-year-old newcomer to town, Martin Luther King, who was soon elected to the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which organized the boycott (it ended after 382 days when the Supreme Court declared bus segregation dead). The boycott put King on the national map, and you can see him beginning to practice for his speech on the Mall eight years later in his speech urging the boycott.

Redneck backlash made life in Montgomery difficult and dangerous. Parks soon lost her job as assistant tailor at a Montgomery department store, and eight months after the boycott ended, Rosa and Raymond moved to be near family in Detroit. The rest of the book is devoted to showing that Parks continued her advocacy for racial justice for nearly 50 years in that city. Her first full-time job in her chosen field was in the office of newly elected Rep. John Conyers, where she fought segregated housing, unequal public schools and police brutality. “I can’t say we like Detroit any better than Montgomery,” she said.

“Women,” Theoharis notes, “provided the backbone of the boycott,” and one theme of her book is the back seat — pun intended — that women were relegated to within the black social justice movement. She notes that Parks was not invited to speak at the MIA founding meeting. Later, she also icily observes how prominent women leaders were eased to the sidelines at the 1963 March on Washington. Lena Horne was sent to her hotel when she started introducing Parks to reporters, “This is who started the civil rights movement, not Martin Luther King. This is the woman you need to interview.”

Another recurrent theme for Theoharis is the extent to which Parks’ “unassuming” personality contrasted with the brasher, more in-your-face demeanor of her (mostly male) activist colleagues. She was at heart a humble, well-dressed, devout (American Methodist Episcopal), and dignified woman — unthreatening markers for all the “spin” doctors to revel in after the bus incident. Though Parks was “a woman of action,” she “did not favor direct confrontation.” But toward the end of her study, Theoharis chooses several assessments of Parks that tell the real story. Conyers says “she had a heavy progressive streak that was uncharacteristic for a neat, religious, demure, churchgoing lady.” A prominent Detroit black nationalist put the paradox more succinctly: She was “quiet and sweet … but strong as acid.” A friend perhaps put it best: “She’s quiet … the way steel is quiet.”

(I spotted one typo in the book, but it is a very scary one! Theoharis says “19 senators and 892 congressmen” issued a “Southern Manifesto” in response to Brown v. Board of Education. A mere 435 of them, I do believe, can create quite enough havoc.)

Parks was increasingly irked in her later years by reporters — seemingly frozen in time — asking her to retell how she wore her black badge of courage. A lifetime of activism taught her that resting on her laurels would not do: Eternal vigilance is the price not only of liberty but also racial justice. She made this point when she returned to Montgomery in 1975 for the 20th anniversary of the boycott. From the same pulpit where the MIA was founded, she urged a cheering crowd, “Don’t stop. Keep on. Keep on keeping on.” The last image of her in Rebellious Life is true to that spirit; it is of Parks marching against apartheid at the South African embassy in 1985.

Parks in the end made peace with the fact that her 15 minutes of famous resistance were indelibly engraved in the national memory. “Interviewers still only want to talk about that one evening in 1955 when I refused to give up my seat,” she wrote in her 1992 autobiography, “I understand that I am a symbol.” Rebellious Life fills in vividly the other days of her life.


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