When Bill Clinton met Rosa Parks, she was decades past the singular protest that had made her one of the most sainted figures in modern American history. But she still looked very much as she had on that December evening in 1955: a rail-thin woman with a soft, round face, her hair wound in a bun, so prim and proper that Clinton couldn’t help but think of what Abraham Lincoln said when he was introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe. “So this is the little lady who started the great war,” Clinton said.
That’s the perception Jeanne Theoharis wants to shatter in her vigorous new biography. In the public mind, she says, Parks has been reduced to a cliche: the demure seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus because her feet were sore from a long day’s work and who, in that one moment of defiance, triggered a wave of protest that swept away the Southern system of segregation. “The accidental matriarch of the civil rights movement,” the New York Times called her shortly after her death in 2005, a tribute tinged with more than a touch of condescension.
But the movement existed long before the police carted Parks off to jail, insists Theoharis, a professor of political science at Brooklyn College. And Parks herself was deeply immersed in it. She’d joined the Montgomery branch of the NAACP in 1943 and quickly become one of its most devoted activists, organizing the branch’s youth groups, working on voter-registration campaigns and directing several profoundly courageous drives to bring to justice white men who’d raped black women. It was difficult, discouraging work, and by the summer of 1955 Parks was burning out. But a two-week stay at the militant Highlander Folk School in rural Tennessee seemed to revive her. She went back to Montgomery in early August. Four months later she boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus, heading for home.
The story of Parks’s arrest and the boycott that followed has been told any number of times before. Theoharis’s version tends toward the academic, its critical moments carefully contextualized, if not always powerfully re-created. In the process, Theoharis adds a depressing new dimension. While Parks’s stance made her a celebrity, it also made her a target. Her family was bombarded with threatening phone calls and letters. Their landlord raised the rent. And a month into the boycott, she and her husband lost their jobs. No one would hire her, not even the boycott’s central organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association, which preferred to have on its staff women of a higher social standing. The couple tried to struggle through. But eventually the pressure became too great. In August 1957, nine months after the boycott’s triumphant conclusion, they packed up their household and headed north — to Detroit, where her brother lived — victims of a system Parks had risked her life to change.
Once she left the South, her public image ossified; bit by bit she became nothing more than the seamstress with the aching feet. But she refused to let that caricature define her. Parks lived in Detroit for 48 years, four more than she’d lived in Alabama. For most of that time, she was just as engaged in the city’s progressive politics as she had been in the Southern movement, appearing at meeting after meeting, rally after rally, her connection solidified by the two decades she spent as an aide to Rep. John Conyers, one of the House’s most liberal members.
Theoharis devotes the final third of her book to those years. At times she tries a bit too hard to give Parks a radical edge: She painstakingly reconstructs Parks’s interest in the Black Power movement that swept through Detroit in the late 1960s and ’70s, for instance, while skimming over her lifelong devotion to her church, St. Matthews’ AME. And Theoharis sees the accolades that poured in late in Parks’s life as demeaning, their intent not to celebrate her activism but to tame it, to turn it into a long-ago step in the making of a post-racial society. Parks herself was more generous. “Organizations still want to give me awards for that one act more than thirty years ago,” she wrote in 1992, four years before she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I understand that I am a symbol.” And symbols are harder to control than Theoharis suggests.
Take one of the final tributes, delivered at the elaborate funeral service following Parks’s death in 2005 at the age of 92. “We remember her principally for that signature act of courage when she sat down where she had been told she could not sit,” then-Sen. Barack Obama said that day. “And yet . . . this was just one small episode in serial acts of courage. . . . We walk in the footsteps of women and men throughout the South and throughout the North, crowned as they were in humility, cloaked as they were in faithfulness. We honor them not by words but by committing ourselves to carry on their struggle, one solitary act at a time.”
A symbol, to be sure, but a demanding one, meant to remind us that we have yet to secure the full measure of justice that the real Rosa Parks wanted to see.
THE REBELLIOUS LIFE
OF MRS. ROSA PARKS
By Jeanne Theoharis
Beacon. 304 pp. $27.95