New Biography of Rosa Parks changes her image

Book Review: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by Jeanne Theoharis

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa ParksThe Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I would give this book 5 stars on content, 3 based on the writing style. The author had unprecedented access to Rosa Parks’ writings and records and provides a comprehensive view of her life and her role in the Civil Rights movement and later in Detroit as a member of the staff of Michigan Congressman John Conyers. The writing is dry and academic, however, and this makes it a somewhat difficult book to get through. I wish the author had spent less effort on explicitly refuting an incorrect perception of Parks as a “tired seamstress.” The particulars of Parks’ life, artfully told, would make this point without hitting the reader over the head with it. By hewing to this script, the author runs the risk of being perceived, 100 years from now, as being as blinded by a political agenda as those she criticizes.

To my embarrassment, I seem to have missed even the superficial beatification of Parks. I was aware of the bare bones of Parks’ bus stand, but was not at the level of attributing motive or feeling that I knew what Parks’ life was all about. My interest in Parks’ life was piqued when I read about Parks in Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. Cain’s thesis was that Parks was an introvert who worked well with and complemented the extroverted Martin Luther King. The two were like yin and yang, both essential to the movement’s success. As an introvert myself who cares deeply about social justice but often struggles with how I fit in to the noisy, messy, confusing world of political activism, I wanted to know about this side of Parks too. After reading this book, I have an abiding sense of how Parks was both a quiet, dignified woman, and a radical moved to anger by the injustices heaped on her and her people. These aspects are not contradictions and never have been.

As I read, embarrassment gave way to a sad sense of deja vu. Parks was not the first person to make a stand against bus discrimination. Earlier in 1955, two Black teenagers, Mary Louise Smith and Claudette Colvin, were also arrested for allegedly violating bus segregation laws. But for various reasons they were not considered sympathetic enough victims to build a movement around, whereas Parks was. Cases of police brutality and horrific violence against African-Americans for which no one was ever arrested, let alone charged, could also come from today’s headlines.

Parts of this book (not only the parallel-constructed title) reminded me of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Both books tell the life story of an African-American woman and her family who made an essential, transformative contribution to American life, yet lived under relative obscurity, poverty, and discrimination for years. Henrietta Lacks was a farmer and cancer patient whose cells, taken from her in the course of treatment, became the HeLa cell line, a vital tool for biomedical research. She died young from the cancer, and her family lived in poverty, without health insurance and unable to receive the health care that her cells made possible. Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond lost their jobs in circumstances surrounding the bus boycott and could not find steady employment for years afterwards. Lacks was not a household name, Parks became one; yet both were forgotten and ignored in important ways while mainstream America looked the other way.

I went to school in a time and place where history classes went up to World War II and stopped. Vietnam, feminism, Civil Rights were all given a cursory treatment, if any. Some high schools and colleges are now making the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks required reading. This book or one like it about Rosa Parks should be similarly honored.

Rosa Parks’ belongings are now available to researchers at the Library of Congress, on loan from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation:

Read about the Henrietta Lacks Family Foundation:

View all my reviews

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