Most of what you think you know about Rosa Parks may well be wrong.
On the verge of the 100th anniversary of her birth this Monday comes a fascinating new book, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” by Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College professor. It argues that the romanticized, children’s-book story of a meek seamstress with aching feet who just happened into history in a moment of uncalculated resistance is pure mythology.
She spent nearly two decades before the bus incident struggling, organizing and agitating for civil rights, mostly as the secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., branch of the N.A.A.C.P. But it wasn’t until Parks was in her 40s and attended an integrated workshop that she found “for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society.” This didn’t mean that she was eager for integration, though. She was later quoted as saying that what people sought “was not a matter of close physical contact with whites, but equal opportunity.”
And the idea that she stayed seated because of physical fatigue is pure fiction.
“I didn’t tell anyone my feet were hurting,” the book quotes her as saying. “It was just popular, I suppose because they wanted to give some excuse other than the fact that I didn’t want to be pushed around.”
When Parks died in 2005, Theoharis says, “The Rosa Parks who surfaced in the deluge of public commentary was, in nearly every account, characterized as ‘quiet.’ ‘Humble,’ ‘dignified,’ and ‘soft-spoken,’ she was ‘not angry’ and ‘never raised her voice.’ ”
Parks, like many other Americans who over the years have angrily agitated for change in this country, had been sanitized and sugarcoated for easy consumption.
As Theoharis writes: “Held up as a national heroine but stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice, the Parks who emerged was a self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption.”
Fortunately, this book seeks to restore Parks’s wholeness, even at the risk of stirring unease.
The Rosa Parks in this book is as much Malcolm X as she is Martin Luther King Jr.
In modern, politically-correct history, the civil rights activists of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s were all saints who nobly suffered for the betterment of all mankind. With a few notable exceptions, white people in the south during that era were evil racists with no redeeming qualities.
The truth, as always, is a little more complex. We are all human. We are simultaneously cable of good and evil. I don’t know how accurate this new Parks biography is, but I do know she was a living, breathing 3-dimensional person, not a caricature.
When we canonize people from history we hold ourselves to an impossible standard. By glorifying the past we diminish the present.
Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. – Daniel 2:31-33