Many of us know that Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks refused to give up a seat on a municipal bus in Montgomery, Alabama – an incident that resulted in her arrest and sparked a year-long boycott of the bus system there.
But relatively few people are familiar with Rosa Parks’s long history of activism that came before the bus boycott, and her political involvement in the half-century that followed. A new book by Brooklyn College political science professor and Milwaukee native Jeanne Theoharis sheds much more light on the complete story of Rosa Parks.
"The Montgomery bus boycott and her bus arrest is a very important part of that, but it is only one of many, many points in her life of a kind of a life of political activism and a life lives in struggle," says Theoharis, who will be in town to talk about Rosa Parks later this month.
The three seeds
In The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Theoharis examines the two "seeds" were planted in Parks' life that would shape her role in the Civil Rights movement, long before the pivotal "bus event." Early on, Parks was influenced by her grandfather's passionate support of Marcus Garvey. Later, she married Raymond Parks, an active participant in the Civil Rights movement.
But it wasn't until a chance sighting that Parks herself got involved. One day in 1955, ten years before her stand on the bus, Parks was at the post office standing in line and she saw a picture of a classmate in a group picture of the NAACP. Theoharis says it was then that she realized that women could have a role in the fight for civil rights, too.
At the first NAACP meeting she attended, she was the only woman (her classmate could not make it to that particular meeting). Parks was named secretary - which Theoharis argues was the third seed of her involvement.
Theoharis says Rosa Parks was made into a myth long before the bus event. She says the NAACP used her image as a nice, passive seamstress in Montgomery, in order to make the organization look safe and not rebellious.
But Parks wasn't content to sit idly by; she took to the community, asking fellow African Americans what they wanted. Theoharis says she quickly became a quiet power of strength.
Fallout from the bus showdown
After Parks' historic stand on the bus, she and her husband suffered; both lost their jobs. Raymond, a barber, worked in a setting where talking about the Civil Rights movement was not allowed. However, being the proud husband that he was, Theoharis says he chose not to hide his private life.
The couple were not able to get jobs in Montgomery and money got tight. The Parks and her mother decided to move to Detroit to get away from the hostile environment of the south. While living in a cramped apartment in Detroit, they remained actively involved in the NAACP movement. Parks was able to work with others to get Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Detroit.
Theoharis says Parks didn't just face racial prejudice; sexism was still an active part of the broader culture, and within the Civil Rights movement.
While at the March on Washington, Parks found out that women were not allowed to speak. Instead, she and other women activists were asked to stand up; the women were appalled.
The Parks finally got work through their activism. But their humble, cramped living situation was revealed to the country in an interview with Jet magazine.
This was in contrast with the private life the Parks lived. Theoharis says, even today the couple's privacy is protected. Some of Parks' papers are publicly available, but most are at an auction warehouse in New York City, remaining unsold. Scholars do not have the chance to view them - and won't buy the lot if they do not know what is included.
Theoharis says there is much more we could learn from these papers, if they ever become available. But in the meantime, there is much more to the Rosa Parks story that we do know that needs to be remembered.
Theoharis will speak at UWM on April 24th, and on April 25th she’ll be at Marquette University as part of The Freedom Project. She will also be speaking as part of "A Tribute to Rosa Parks's Life of Activism," sponsored by more than 20 community organiations, at Milwaukee's Central United Methodist Church on April 26th at 7 PM.