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Known for Single Act of Defiance, Rosa Parks Trained for Life Full of Activism

February 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
What do you really know about the life and legacy of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks? Gwen Ifill talks with biographer Jeanne Theoharis, whose book "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks" offers a complex portrait of the woman best known for refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, what you might not know about the life and legacy of a civil rights pioneer.

Gwen Ifill has our book conversation.

GWEN IFILL: By the time Rosa Parks died in Detroit in 2005, her place in the history books was assured. She was the first lady of civil rights, the mother of the freedom movement. Mourners lined up in three cities to pay their respects, in Montgomery, Ala., at the U.S. Capitol, where she was the first woman and only second African-American to lie in honor, and in her adopted hometown of Detroit, where her funeral ran for more than seven hours.

Everyone agreed that the 92-year-old Parks had made history when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus in 1955. Her arrest sparked a 382-day bus boycott that caught the attention of a movement and a nation.

But there was more to Rosa Parks’ action that day, which was neither as random or as isolated as it has come to be seen. Now, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, a new biography explores “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.”

The author is Jeanne Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

The word rebellious doesn’t usually appear in the same sentence as Rosa Parks. She is a different person than we thought.

JEANNE THEOHARIS, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks”: Right. And that’s her word.

She talks about having a life history of being rebellious, which is where the title comes from. And I think it gets at sort of both the scope of her political life and then, right, the kind of character that we, I think, have come to sort of miss, right, when we see just Rosa Parks on that one day.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I know, in elementary school, I was taught that she was a tired seamstress. Her feet were tired. She sat down on the bus and didn’t want to get up. And then, later on, the rumor was that she was an NAACP plant sent in to stir up trouble.

But she was neither of these.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: No, she was neither of these. And she would be the first to correct us, right, if we were saying she was tired, because in her autobiography, she says, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

She wasn’t tired. This comes out of a long history of activism. This is not her first act against segregation. And she very much sees this in the context of this — she doesn’t — she says she’s not doing anything very different from what she’d been doing for years before — before she makes the stand on the bus.

GWEN IFILL: And in the end, she was far more radical than people think of her.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Absolutely.

I mean, also, her activism doesn’t end in Montgomery. She is — eight months after the boycott, and she is forced to leave Montgomery. She loses her job during the boycott. Her husband loses his job during the boycott. They’re getting continuous death threats that continue even after the boycott ends.

And so, eight months later, after the boycott, they move to Detroit. And so she spends more than half of her political life in Detroit fighting the Jim Crow North, right, challenging Northern racism.

GWEN IFILL: When we think about the civil rights movement, we often think of men, her collaborator E.D. Nixon, or Martin Luther King, or even Malcolm X. But you seldom hear about the women.

And she wasn’t just — she wasn’t the only one.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: No.

I mean, so she has this longer history. She, in 1943, sees a picture of a friend in the paper and realizes that women can join the NAACP. So, she goes down. She’s the only woman there that day. And she’s made secretary. She’s elected secretary, but she’s going to spend 10 years before the — her bus arrest with E.D. Nixon transforming the Montgomery NAACP into a much more activist branch.

Also, her act on the bus is not the first. She’s not the first person. She’s not the first woman. There are many women in that decade before she is arrested that makes these kinds of stands on the bus. That year in March, a young woman, a 15-year-old makes — is arrested for her stand on the bus. That’s Claudette Colvin. That’s very much where this begins.

GWEN IFILL: But Rosa Parks, with her straw hats and her church lady clothes and her demure attitude and her maternal aspect, was a far more preferable face to put on this, wasn’t she?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Yes, but I think part of why the community galvanizes behind her is also because they know her, they respect her, they see themselves in her, but they also trust, because she’s been active for so many years, that he’s not going to flinch under the pressure that’s going to be brought to bear on anybody who becomes a kind of face of such a movement.

So, in many ways, part of why they galvanize behind her is she is a good face for the movement. But part of why they galvanize behind her is because of this longer history of kind of political work and activism.

GWEN IFILL: And part of the reason why she chose to be the face is because she went for training. She didn’t just happen to be there that day. I mean, she happened to be there in that she was commuting home from work, but she was trained in how to behave in a situation like that.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. Right.

So five months before she makes the stand on the bus, she goes to Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. And Highlander is an adult kind of organizer training school. It’s trying to teach local people how to be leaders of their own movements. And she goes a two-week workshop. She takes off work to go to this workshop on school desegregation.

And it’s very much about the kind of power of the individual to go back and lead their own communities. Now, interestingly, on the last day, they do this go-round, and they are asked, what are you going to do when you go back? And she says, well, resistance in Montgomery is too fierce. People are never going to be unified, so there’s no mass movement that is going to — mass movement that is going to emerge, but I’m going to keep working with the young people, because she’s sort of formed a youth chapter of the Montgomery NAACP.

So she very much is not hopeful that in that moment that there is going to be this mass movement. And yet, five months later, right, on Dec. 1st, 1955, again, in her words, pushed as far as I could be pushed, sort of doing what I had asked of others. Right?

So she sees herself in this kind of community of activists. She refuses to give up her seat.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you. In putting this book together, you found things we hadn’t seen before, but there’s a lot more out there, isn’t there?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Absolutely.

So part of her paper — she gives part of her papers in the late ’70s to the Reuther Library at Wayne State. And she refers to this as sort of the first of her papers. But part of her personal papers are still here at an auction house. The probate judge in Detroit gives it to an auction house here in New York to sell. And it’s basically been sitting here for five years.

And so there’s a lot more — no scholar has gotten to see those papers, which, again, I think, is very disturbing. I don’t think you could sell papers of Martin Luther King, of FDR, of sort of other important 20th century political figures without a scholar assessing the papers. And yet no scholar has gotten to assess her papers.

And they are priced along with her effects very — $8 million to $10 million dollars. And so it puts a lot of institutions that she cared about sort of out of the running for those kind of papers.

GWEN IFILL: You say two things in the book which I think most people would have to stop and think about. One is that the retelling of her life was that it was a romantic fable. And the other thing you talk about is her death and how it was a ritual of national redemption.

What did you mean by those two things?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: I mean, she’s known for one act. She is celebrated for one act. And I think part of that celebration then puts it all in the past, right, when the actual Rosa Parks keeps working on racial and social justice issues all the way up to the end of her life.

Right? So she doesn’t stop. She believes there’s more change. And yet the way that she’s memorialized sort of seeks to kind of end it, to say we are a post-racial society, when the actual Rosa Parks didn’t think we were a post-racial society.

And so I use that sort of romantic fable, because I think part of how we have come to use her story is a way as a kind of nation to make ourselves feel so good about how far we have come, in many ways to ignore how far yet we have to go.

GWEN IFILL: Jeanne Theoharis, the author of “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” thank you so much.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gwen continued her conversation with biographer Theoharis. You will find that and more in Gwen’s take on our home page.