I recommended The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks because I saw an interview with the author, Jeanne Theoharis, on Melissa Harris Perry’s MSNBC show several months ago. I was struck by the fact that the simple almost-storybook history of Rosa Parks’ one act – defying the law regarding the seats given to African-Americans in the Jim Crow South – is very far from the complicated individual and extraordinary life of Mrs. Parks. That being said, I wasn’t expecting this book to be so DENSE. It’s more like a reference book used for a college course on the Civil Rights Movement rather than an accessible account of the life and times of a civil rights icon. That being said, I take Theoharis’ claim at face value, that this book serves as the ONLY comprehensive look at the life and lifelong advocacy work done by Mrs. Parks. And that’s a shame.
Even from the first third of the book, all of the pre-Montgomery Bus Boycott details of Mrs. Parks life, struck me as particularly cinematic. I wasn’t expecting that, but do you realize that there’s only been one major TV movie done about Mrs. Parks’ life? And that was just about her arrest and the bus boycott. Her life is crying out for a prestigious HBO miniseries, hand to God. This is driven home time and time again: Mrs. Parks toiled (often alone or with her dear friend and activist ally, E.D. Nixon) in civil rights work for literally decades before her arrest in 1955. She took testimony from African-Americans violently abused by the white power structure. She taught children how to advocate for their interests. She organized, she worked as a secretary for the NAACP, and on and on. She often felt profoundly lonely in her pre-arrest years.
By the time the account of Mrs. Parks’ arrest and the subsequent Montgomery Bus Boycott are recounted, everything starts to feel more familiar, but the experience is richer knowing how Mrs. Parks got to that place. That place where she refused to give up her seat. That place where she made an extraordinary act of personal dignity. We often think of Mrs. Parks as an “older lady” at the time of her arrest, but she was only 42 years old. Granted, that was old enough for her to be considered the “mother figure” to all of the young male organizers. In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. (the newest and youngest minister in Montgomery) was only 26. It was in this moment when you begin to feel the first splinters in the history-book narrative. The boycott was organized by men, but the women were often on the frontlines of carrying out the day-to-day activities of the boycott. Mrs. Parks lost her job (as a department store seamstress) and then barely any of the money pouring in to support the boycott went to Mrs. Parks. She basically spent the next decade post-arrest living hand-to-mouth.
Mrs. Parks finally got a permanent job with Congressman John Conyers in 1965 and she and her husband moved permanently to Detroit. I came away with an abiding respect for Rep. Conyers for recognizing the need to give Mrs. Parks a permanent job, and for utilizing her strengths as an organizer. She acted, for the most part, as Conyers’ eyes and ears in Detroit. The post-1965 period of her life (she passed away in 2006 and Mrs. Parks is still the only African-American woman to lay in state in the US Capitol) was also rich in advocacy and activist work.
I enjoyed so many details about Mrs. Parks life – her lifelong love of children and her belief that future generations will find new and different ways to fight oppression and inequality. I loved that she made clothes for all of her nieces and nephews. I loved how militant she was, in the early days and later in her life, when she idolized Malcolm X. I loved what little information there was about her marriage to Raymond Parks and how he supported her 100% through thick and thin. In the worst days in Montgomery, when the KKK was bombing MLK’s home, Raymond would get his gun and sit the night watch, protecting his wife. Theirs was a marriage of equals. It was a good book, I just wish it had been a bit more readable and accessible.
Oh, and by the way: we’re putting the Book Club on hold for a while. With the holidays and the awards season rolling up in the next four months, we probably won’t start the book club up again until next spring!
Bedhead’s take: I agree with Kaiser about this book’s lack of accessibility. Maybe it says something about my attention level, but I required some caffeine to get through the bulkier, fact-heavy sections of this book. It was still a great read and a very rewarding fount of knowledge.
What did I like best? The PR orchestrations that led to the commonly known public image of Rosa Parks, which revolves solely around the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Behind the scenes, Rosa advocated for decades before and after the brief moment in time that made her a legend. Parks remained an indomitable spirit throughout her life. She continuously plugged away at the civil rights movement despite (successful) efforts by others to downplay her contributions. The fact that it took a book of this caliber to paint a new portrait of Parks’ image speaks to the gender discrimination even within the civil rights movement. So I enjoyed getting to know the real Rosa Parks instead of simply rereading about the lady who refused to sit in the back of the bus.
This book is revisionist history and does its job well. Even if one isn’t interested in learning more about the inner mechanisms of Parks’ civil rights efforts, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks is a stunning example of how history books don’t even come close to telling the whole truth. That’s an invaluable lesson.