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The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis, Beacon Press, 2013, 244 pp
Although this book was only 244 pages, short for a biography, it took me quite a while to get through it. I had wanted to read it ever since it was published and I learned much I hadn't known before, so I can only think that it was something about the writing style which made for a somewhat dry read.
The premise put forth by Jeanne Theoharis is that Mrs Parks has been relegated to being thought of as only a nice little lady who refused to give up her seat on the bus in 1955. The resulting year-long bus boycott by Negroes in Montgomery, Alabama, brought Martin Luther King to nationwide recognition and positioned him as the leader of the Civil Rights movement but left Rosa in the background. The biography recounts her earlier full decade of activism before the bus incident. Instead of suddenly deciding to stay in her seat after a long day at work, her resistance was in fact the product of long discouraging hard work as she and her husband tried in many ways to fight against Jim Crow segregation in the South.
We get the whole history of her life which went on for another 50 years after the day on the bus. Due to decisions made by predominately male civil rights leaders and due to developments in the movement, she was converted into a symbol of non-violent protest. She was a soft-spoken and somewhat shy person but actually held strong beliefs about freedom and rights for all people. She never stopped working to bring those beliefs into reality.
Though she willingly traveled the country for years to speak at rallies and events, she also spent countless hours, days, and years at a desk, managing civil rights offices, making phone calls, and writing letters. Much has been written about how the male leaders of various civil rights groups were reluctant to put power in women's hands. Rosa comes across in this biography as a women who cared deeply about others' rights to equality and freedom but had difficulty claiming her own rights.
She suffered from dire financial insecurity after the bus boycott because no white business would hire her or her husband following the arrest and trial she endured. She was fired from her job as an alterations seamstress at one of Montgomery's fine department stores. She also had health problems and no money for treatment, while daily hate calls came through her phone and bricks through her windows. In her political views she was closer to Malcolm X and the Black Panthers in the 1960s than she was to Dr King. Mainly she was tireless, determined, and not given to petty disputes.
I am so glad I read the book as it added to my understanding of those times. The author's research goes deep and felt sound. The racism encountered by Mrs Parks and her husband after they moved to Detroit in 1957, though not as outwardly virulent, was nearly as bad as it had been in Alabama. Rosa called it "the Northern promised land that wasn't."
When I read about women as strong as Rosa, as dedicated to her beliefs, as filled with hope and faith that change is possible, it becomes impossible to complain about any single thing in my life. (Of course I still do.) Change is not the result of one memorable deed. It is the result of long, hard, persistent work. I thank Jeanne Theoharis for resurrecting the real Mrs Rosa Parks from the oblivion of having been made into a political symbol and giving anyone who takes the time to read her book the full picture of an amazing female.
(The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)