Book Review: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

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The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Harris

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.

Book Review: ‘Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples’ by Sean Michael Wilson et al.

'Fight the Power!' by Wilson et al.

‘Fight the Power!’ by Wilson et al.

Wilson, Seán Michael, Benjamin Dickson, Hunt Emerson, John Spelling and Adam Pasion. Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English-Speaking Peoples. Oxford: New Internationalist, 2013.

The title of Fight the Power! A Visual History of Protest among the English-Speaking Peoples may be a little long winded, but it does sum up the book well. Through the medium of comic strips, the book tells the story of some of the key moments in the history of protest in the English-speaking world (well, from the last 2 centuries anyway). The protests discussed are wide ranging in terms of topic and geography, taking in race, class, labour and governance issues, as well as such diverse countries as Ireland, Australia, America, and the former British Empire.

The format of the book makes it incredibly approachable and engaging, ideal for young people (although some of the images are a little graphic) or those with little previous knowledge of protest. The examples lack detail and can be one-sided, but neither of these are inherently bad things. The book is a fantastic introduction to many protests, and it does not claim to be an unbiased account.

Despite the diversity of the examples, several themes recur throughout the book. One is police brutality. The actions taken by those in authority attempting to suppress protest have frequently proved provocative, causing demonstrations to escalate into violent clashes. The Battle of Peterloo (1819) and the Battle of Toledo (1934), amongst others, are good examples of this. Violence, or the lack of it, is another theme that recurs throughout the book. Whether or not to use violence is one of the most fundamental decisions a protest movement makes, which can drastically influence the outcome of a campaign. There is no ‘right’ answer; apart from the moral debate, both violent and non-violent movements have proved successful in the past.

The lasting impression which the book leaves is one of hope. Particularly in the past few years, it can be very easy to believe that protest does not achieve anything, that  it is all too easy for those in authority to repress or ignore demonstrations and social movements. But what the examples in Fight the Power prove is that protest can force change. The Suffragettes, Rosa Parks, and the various independence movements of the British empire demonstrate that change may take time, decades even, and it may not be exactly the progress that you imagined, but it can be achieved.

Another key message of the book, which is particularly relevant to my PhD, is that past protests can provide both practical suggestions and inspiration to contemporary protest movements. As Tariq Ali writes in the Introduction, “History rarely repeats itself, but its echoes never go away” (p5). An image on the back cover of the book shows an Occupy protester holding a “We are the 99%” placard, backed by a Suffragette, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and others mentioned in the book. It is a powerful image of historical solidarity.

This book was given to me as a Christmas present (I got a lot of books this year, so brace yourself for a lot of reviews over the next few months!), and it certainly fulfills that role perfectly. It is a nice introduction to some of the most famous protests in the history of the English-speaking world, but I would recommend it even if you are already familiar with most of them as a refreshing approach to the history of protest.