Jeanne Theoharis. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013). £16.99.
I buy a lot of books. To the extent that I cannot read books as fast as I buy them. As a result, I have a lot of unread books sitting on my bookshelves. Whenever I finish reading a book I go to my bookcase, look at all the unread books, and see which one takes my fancy to read next. A few weeks ago, it was the turn of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis. It has been sitting on my shelves since the great book-buying spree of ’15, during my trip to New York two years ago. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get round to reading it- I loved this book.
Theoharis starts this book at the end, with all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the funeral of Rosa Parks when she died in 2005. Perhaps one of the best known individuals in American history for her role in kickstarting the civil rights movement, Parks became a legend in her own lifetime. The quiet, soft-spoken seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man in Montgomery, Alabama is well known the world over. However, the legend of Rosa Parks bears only passing resemblance to the real woman. An activist all her life, her decision not to move on that bus was the result of years of anger and frustration at American injustice, not tired feet.
In this thoroughly researched, well-paced book, Theoharis details the life of a woman who was brought up with a sense of pride and her own self-worth, who was willing to stand up and defend herself if she was attacked. Along with others, Parks campaigned for civil rights in Montgomery for decades before her bus protest in 1955. The protest took its toll, leaving Parks, her husband, and her mother economically insecure and dealing with constant threats. In 1957, the family moved to Detroit, where Rosa continued to campaign for civil rights for the next four days. Whilst segregation was not legally enforced in northern US states, Parks saw it as just as pervasive as in the south, and continued to fight in any way she could.
In The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Theoharis looks at the myth of Rosa Parks, considering its purpose and effects, then dismantles it, writing a biography of a life-long activist who was not afraid to ruffle some feathers. Rosa Parks was a fascinating woman who had a fascinating life; she was a great admirer of both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and she supported both the civil rights movement and the more antagonistic Black Power movement. Parks threw herself into so many campaigns and activities that her life is like a slice though the struggle for racial equality in mid- and late-twentieth century America.
I think most people are familiar with the myth of Rosa Parks, and know that she was someone special. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks reveals that the reality is much more interesting than the myth.