CB Book Club: ‘The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks’ by Jeanne Theoharis

rosa parks

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.

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19 Responses to “CB Book Club: ‘The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks’ by Jeanne Theoharis”

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  1. Tiffany27 says:

    Very cool I’ll check it out. If it reads like a college course book I will love it. I was the nerd who didn’t sell my books back when the class was over.

    • dholmas says:

      It sounds like a good read. I also kept my course books. Nothing wrong with being a nerd. My husband is also a geek. LOL!

  2. Pixelated says:

    I’m still reading the book. I agree-it’s very dense. I wish the author had written in a less academic and more conversational tone because it would’ve been more accessible. Parks’ story is very important and needs to be heard by everyone.
    From what I’ve read so far, the information seems well-researched and there are some really heartbreaking stories about how blacks were treated in the South and the shaky rise and muddled politics of the NAACP. Rosa comes across as an extremely strong person but I sometimes got the impression that the author was hounding her graduate thesis on us- that Parks WAS a strong woman, not a gentle bystander, ect. She pretty much repeates this argument every single page. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Yeah, I’m NOT arguing with you, there’s no need to be so aggressive with your thesis!’
    So, if I had a complaint, it would be that it’s a bit too academic for a nighttime read and the author came across as unnecessarily aggressive. Other than that, the book serves its purpose-it gives Mrs. Parks a voice that has long been unheard.

    • Kiddo says:

      But maybe that point needs to be hammered home, since there is so much discussion lately about ‘tone’.*
      * Haven’t read this book, yet.

    • Jessica says:

      It’s not supposed to be a “nighttime read”, it’s an academic biography from a political science professor.

  3. Magsmarq says:

    It’s a dense read because it is an academic work of history and not a popular work of history. Theoharis is writing for her peers and colleagues, and she’s a highly regarded academic.

    • Pixelated says:

      @Jessica @Magsmarq I agree with you both and I do understand the author’s background and intent. Personally (and especially since this was chosen as a book club book) I would’ve liked the book to to written in a more conversational and approachable style so that a wider audience would have access to it (thinking airport bookstores, ect.) This doesn’t mean I don’t value her work or what she wrote. When I was in high school or college, I would’ve loved to read something like this. It’s a refreshing take on history and sparks great conversation.

    • Chai says:

      As a political science professor myself, I think that readable and academic actually should co-exist. There’s a lot of debate about how we’re damning ourselves in the field by being inaccessible to the public and that’s a problem.

      • Kaiser says:

        I agree, Chai – I don’t understand why calling something “academic” should be a catch-all for “a really difficult read.” Rosa Parks was a fascinating woman and I would have enjoyed reading about her even more if the writing had been more straight-forward, even conversational.

  4. LAK says:

    Thank you for recommending this book. It was very informative.

  5. GoodNamesAllTaken says:

    Downloaded it. Forgot to read it. I am such a loser sometimes.

    • Celebitchy says:

      It’s ok! I got it from the library and couldn’t get through it. I owe Kaiser and Bedhead. (As usual!) The parts that I did read were very interesting. I just wish it was available as an audiobook. Also some of the details were heartbreaking and hard to take.

      • GoodNamesAllTaken says:

        Oh, thank you. I feel less loserish now. I’ll still try to read it, maybe at the same time as another, less heavy book.

  6. Ally8 says:

    I think “revisionist” usually has a negative connotation, like wiping away the true account. This sounds more like documenting, completing and correcting the record, which I think is what you meant.

    It would be wonderful to see it made into a film so that an accessible telling of her hard work and bravery can reach millions.

  7. Esmom says:

    Sorry I missed this one, it’s still on my “to read” list. Thanks to the CB team for bringing it to my attention!

    • cubfan34 says:

      I didn’t find it dense.
      I wasn’t aware she was so active in the civil rights movement before her arrest.

  8. Brionne says:

    I’m curious about why BedHead described this book as revisionist history? Doesn’t that term imply that what’s been written is not the truth and has been slanted for a particular effect? Thanks for selecting this book!

  9. Nimbolicious says:

    I actually finished the book well in advance of the discussion date, but wasn’t able to get it together to post until now. I’m sure everyone’s moved on by now, but I love the book club and want to support it by participating. I’m sorry to hear the club is going on hiatus, but I get it.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed the book. I agree that it got dense at times, but I stuck with it because I appreciated the portrayal of Mrs. Parks as a multi-dimensional, complicated woman rather than as just a not-wanting-to-stand- ee. I also enjoyed her analysis as to why the inaccurate portrayal has been so persistent despite so much evidence to the contrary — that it was a convenient way to quite literally white-wash the whole Civil Rights movement

    I won’t say more beecause I think everyone is over it by this point. But I want to thank you ladies for starting up the club and for the varied selection of books chosen thus far.