Welcome Jeanne Theoharis (The Nation) (Salon.com) and Host Peterr (FDL)

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

It’s one thing to be at the center of a culture-shifting event, and something else entirely to continue to live your life while the rest of the world reacts to that event — and you — for the rest of your life. You are not only changed by the event itself, but continue to be shaped by the reactions that others have to it, and they way they interpret what you have done.

In her portrait of Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis invites her readers to distinguish between these two things, and in so doing, she leads us to re-think who Parks was, what it means to be an activist, and the line between person and symbol. The introduction to the book, entitled “National Honor/Public Mythology: The Passing of Rosa Parks,” lays out the various two-dimensional images of this very three dimensional woman, and from there Theoharis unpacks her story.

And what a story it is.

The center of the story, as Theoharis relates it, is not Mrs. Parks’ arrest, nor her trial, nor her later celebrity and widespread adoration, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott that followed her arrest. The first three chapters give us the background on Parks and her activism, ranging from the personal story of her early years, the wider context of the civil rights movement before her arrest, and the detailed story of her historic ride on the bus itself. The last three chapters go into the aftermath of her suffering, her experience of the black freedom struggle in Detroit during the 50s and 60s, and the her life during the black power era of the 70s and beyond. But at the center of the book is the boycott — a community’s reaction to an activist’s principled challenge to oppression.

As Theoharis shows, Mrs. Parks was no “simple seamstress” who was too tired after a long day of work. She was instead a woman shaped by her experiences of injustice (racial and economic), and drawn to work that moved from avoidance to resistance to forceful opposition. In the central chapter of the book, Theoharis relates how after her trial, Parks went to the office of her lawyer and fellow activist, Fred Gray. Gray had to go out, and asked if she would answer the phones while he was gone. She agreed, and soon found herself taking calls from people wanting to talk to her, but she never let on who she was and let them simply leave messages for Gray. Says Theoharis:

This moment reveals one of the paradoxes of Mrs. Parks’s [sic] own choices about her role in the movement. Parks was a shy person and a political organizer who believed in collective action over individual celebrity. These traits combined to produce the mixture of action and reticence that would characterize her public role in the days and years to come. Over the course of the boycott, she would participate in dozens of programs when she saw it as a way to further the protest. (And over the next half century, this would grow to include thousands of appearances.) But time and again, she actively avoided the spotlight and sometimes obscured the role she was actually playing.

Different readers will be struck by different chapters of the book. For me, the first two chapters were the ones that stood out most. Several years ago, I was honored to host Rev. Robert Graetz and his wife Jean in my home when both were attending a conference nearby. The Graetzs, like the King family, were relative newcomers in Montgomery when Parks was arrested, and Bob’s position as a white pastor serving a black Lutheran church gave him a unique place in the community. From them, I heard firsthand some of the story that Theoharis relates here, and reading the additional background from this book made Bob and Jean’s stories that much more vivid.

In short, Theoharis presents a three-dimensional picture of a woman most often seen as a two-dimensional character. Parks comes across as a person, rather than a symbol that people point to and look at.

After reading the book, it strikes me that it is precisely her personhood that made the Montgomery Bus Boycott happen in the first place. Various others had been through the same kind of humiliation that she endured, various others were arrested and tried, and yet these situation did not move the community to act. What moved them was Mrs. Parks. For years, she had been quietly known in the community for her commitment to justice. She labored for anti-lynching laws, and went up and down the state documenting cases of assaults, rapes, and murders that the police refused to investigate. She learned to work the press, and she took part in a Highlander workshop on desegregation and implementing Brown v Board of Education. She participated in building (and later rebuilding) the local NAACP chapter into an effective force in the community — work, which according to Theoharis, most whites did not even know about. But her community knew, and they came out to stand with her — much to the surprise of the white Montgomery community, the black community, and Mrs. Rosa Parks herself.

And once more, the word “paradox” emerges:

The paradox was this: Parks’s refusal to get up from her seat and the community outrage around her arrest were rooted in her long history of political involvement and their trust in her. However, this same political history got pushed to the background to further the image of the boycott. Parks had a more extensive and progressive background than many of the boycott leaders; many people probably didn’t know she had been to Highlander, and some would have been uncomfortable with her ties to leftist organizers. Rosa Parks proved an ideal person around which a boycott could coalesce, but it demanded publicizing a strategic image of her.

That tension between Parks as a person and Parks as a symbol would continue throughout her life, at times with her approval but much more commonly, without it.

And it continues beyond her life as well, as next week will probably demonstrate. On February 27th, a statue of Mrs. Rosa Parks will be unveiled in the US Capitol building, paid for by an act of Congress (unlike most statues there which were paid for by private donations). Speeches will be made, and stories will be told. But as I watch and listen, I will do so much differently having read of the rebellious life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Activism is not a sprint; it is a marathon. My sincere thanks to Jeanne Theoharis for her wonderful book, and I look forward to the discussion in the comments.

 

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

127 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jeanne Theoharis: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks”

BevW February 23rd, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Jeanne, Welcome to the Lake.

Peterr, Thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

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Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 1:55 pm
In response to BevW @ 1

Thanks. It’s good to be here.

RevBev February 23rd, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Welcome….I certainly enjoyed your book. Almost as an aside, is there
anything more you would like to have included? Either as a choice or in hind sight?

Elliott February 23rd, 2013 at 1:59 pm

Welcome to the Lake Jeanne. Peterr’s written a very inviting intro to your book, I’m looking forward to reading it.

What was the most striking thing that you learned about Mrs. Parks as you investigated her life?

dakine01 February 23rd, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Good afternoon Jeanne and welcome to Firedoglake this afternoon. Hi Peterr!

Jeanne I have not had an opportunity to read your book but do have a question. Did you have an opportunity to meet and speak with Mrs Parks?

Also, was there any level of sexism involved in the story of Mrs Parks answering the phones as related by Peterr above?

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Thanks for coming, Jeanne. Your book was a real pleasure to read, and I’m delighted to introduce it here.

In your conclusion, you used the phrase “depoliticized exaltation” to describe how Mrs. Parks’ image had been transformed by the end of her life. Was there a particular episode or speech that crystallized that for you?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:03 pm

To keep it at a readable and affordable length, I had to cut down a lot of detail on a number of the events and episodes I describe and pare down the endnotes to basically just the citations. Certainly, I would have liked to have much richer endnotes. For scholars and students, they may be quite disappointing in their terseness.

Teddy Partridge February 23rd, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I’m really enjoying this book, thank you for humanizing and demystifying the necessary image-making around Rosa Parks. Whose idea was it that she should simply be a “tired seamstress wanting a seat” instead of a progressive community activist with a long history of movement exercises?

And why was that idea implemented?

Thank you!

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 2:05 pm

Welcome Jeanne!

I haven’t finished your book, but it’s really engaging.

I haven’t read other Rosa Parks bios. One of the most fascinating things I’ve found so far was the rich tapestry of gender and class and labor issues you capture. How would you say that compares with the scholarship before your book?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:06 pm
In response to Elliott @ 4

Almost half of my book focuses on Rosa Parks’ life after Montgomery. The Parks were forced to leave Montgomery eight months after the boycott. They had lost their jobs early in the boycott and received steady death threats–all of which continued after the boycott ended. So probably the most fascinating part for me was her life and political activities in Detroit–which are virtually unknown.

Phoenix Woman February 23rd, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I am so struck at how shy and self-effacing Mrs. Parks was. She wasn’t in this for ego gratification, or for power, but for the betterment of society as a whole.

Yet this shyness served her well; while others talked, she sat and listened — and learned more about them than they realized.

Teddy Partridge February 23rd, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Even today, the mythologizing continues. Can you comment on Congressman Conyers’ characterization of Rosa Parks as “humble” in this LATimes article about the statue to be unveiled in the Capitol? He makes it sound as if she did not know the impact she would make, the process she was beginning:

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), for whom Parks worked, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “As humble as she was, she would be overwhelmed by the fact that there would be a statue in Statuary Hall in her honor.’’

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 2:09 pm

What’s your sense so far of whether more general readers or more scholars are picking it up?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:09 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 5

I think Mrs. Parks encountered a great deal of sexism and gendered expectations over the course of her political life. In terms of this scene, she would often help out lawyer Fred Gray by answering his phones–as she did that day (after she was arraigned in court) to useful on this first day of the boycott. Probably even more problematic was that Gray went out to a meeting that afternoon with Martin Luther King, E.D. Nixon and others that would launch the Montgomery Improvement Association–a meeting that Parks and Women’s Political Council president JoAnn Robinson did not attend.

Phoenix Woman February 23rd, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Yes, she took a “simple” secretarial job in John Conyers’ office and quietly made the most of it, in her own way. Things happened and got done that could have been traced back to her involvement if anyone had ever bothered to look, but few did.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Oh, but you’ve got to give grad students primary sources to dig through. “The rest is left as an exercise . . .”

The voluminous notes and sourcing make it clear that you are writing at least in part for the academic world, but to what extent did you see yourself writing for the broader public?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:12 pm
In response to Peterr @ 6

To me, many of the media accounts and eulogies surrounding her lying in honor at the Capitol seemed depoliticizing–at once celebrating her and at the same time missing the substance of her life. The New York Times disturbingly calls her in its eulogy the “accidental matriarch” of the civil rights movement.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:16 pm
In response to Teddy Partridge @ 8

There are different reasons and historical motivations for the idea of the quiet seamstress. During the boycott–because this is happening in the midst of the Cold War and civil rights activities are regularly red-baited and deemed the work of “outside agitators”–black leaders, the black press, and even Parks herself background her politics to keep the movement safe. But that idea takes on a much different valence in the 1990s and 2000s when this mythology helps to inscribe a notion of a post-racial America where the civil rights movement is honored and structural racism is treated as a thing of the past.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:18 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 9

Surprisingly, my book is the first full-length, footnoted scholarly biography of Rosa Parks. So there wasn’t a lot of scholarship on her–which speaks to the ways that she is paradoxically held up and relegated as a hero for children. (Certainly there are dozens of young adult histories/biographies of her.)

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:18 pm

As I read your opening introduction, I was reminded of the Audre Lorde poem, “The Day They Euologized Mahalia” from 1971 that includes these lines:

. . . Now she was safe
acceptable that big Mahalia
Chicago turned all out
to show her that they cared
but her eyes were closed
And although Mahalia loved our music
nobody sang her favorite song
and while we talked about
what a hard life she had known
and wasn’t it too bad Sister Mahalia
didn’t have it easier earlier
SIX BLACK CHILDREN
BURNED TO DEATH IN A DAY CARE CENTER
on the South Side
kept in a condemned house
for lack of funds . . .

Small and without song
six Black children found a voice in flame
the day the city eulogized Mahalia.

Depoliticized, indeed.

Phoenix Woman February 23rd, 2013 at 2:18 pm

So they stripped out the politics behind her actions for the same reasons that most retellings of Dr. King’s life edit out the last five years of it — you know, the period where he tried to organize effective opposition to the Vietnam War and also worked to assist the union movement?

Of course, it’s easier to pretend that someone like Rosa Parks was “apolitical” because she didn’t grab for the spotlight the way the media thinks political leaders do (or should do).

bgrothus February 23rd, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Thank you for writing this important book. I was talking about it yesterday with a friend, who has it, I have not yet read it.

We were talking about how one maintains a balance in this work, particularly when it feels overwhelming or when we find ourselves overcome with anger.

I am hoping there is some insight from Ms. Parks on how she managed to keep going. Our struggles today could not be less difficult than what she faced.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:20 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 11

She was certainly reserved and self-effacing–but she was also firm, persistent and quite fearless. It’s quite a combination.

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Given the questions about FBI files pertaining to King and Parks–and the red-baiting pressuring some of the organizing–as I was reading I was wondering how many of the people in the book had had their FBI files FOIAed?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I do think she was constantly overwhelmed by the public attention to her. But as you say, that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t a lifelong political activist and purposeful in her actions.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:22 pm

As a preacher who loves to tell stories, I am well aware that how a narrator refers to people shapes what they hear. I was intrigued by your frequent use of “Mrs. Parks” and “Parks”, rather than “Rosa” or “Rosa Parks”, which you explain in the introduction as a conscious decision to provide “a form of respect that white people of the era routinely denied black women and the way many people who respected her referred to her.”

For me, this worked both as a constant reminder of the lack of respect she got from the white community long ago, and also the similar lack of respect that is embodied in the “accidental matriarch” line. What prompted you to take this approach?

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 2:24 pm

What a coincidence. I’ve almost finished listening to Prof. Hollowway’s course on AA History from Emancipation to the Present. His coverage of Montgomery bus boycott is at the beginning of this lecture. It was interesting to learn that Parks was trained the prior summers at the Highlander School in Tennessee about how to comport herself and other skills she would need in the aftermath of her arrest. In other words, there was nothing spontaneous about Parks’ arrest and the boycott that followed. Further context about how Parks was carefully chosen bc she was the model citizen, her perfectly neat dress and conventional appearance. Lots of planning went into this act of civil disobedience.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:24 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 13

I’ve been astonished and gratified by the response to the book. I’ve been hearing from lots and lots of people about how much they have longed for such a treatment of the book. The book went into a second printing just a few weeks after it came out–and last week was #34 on the New York Times bestseller list. So it seems to be striking a chord with many people.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:25 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 15

Indeed. One of the most frustrating things as a researcher was the many oral histories done with her where they are sitting with her in Detroit, in Conyers’ office, and yet the interviewer barely asks a question about her political work in Detroit or her thoughts on contemporary political issues in the North.

BooRadley February 23rd, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Jeanne, can’t thank you enough for the effort into telling the story of a towering 20th century hero. Am budgeting to buy it.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:27 pm
In response to Peterr @ 16

I definitely wrote the book for a general public. Parks is a national hero–and my students have thrilled to this fuller, more political picture of her in the years I was working on the book. So I certainly had a broader audience in mind.

BooRadley February 23rd, 2013 at 2:28 pm

awesome!

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:28 pm
In response to Peterr @ 20

This is a beautiful poem.

Teddy Partridge February 23rd, 2013 at 2:30 pm

This is wonderful news! And your book is worthy of every bit of it.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:31 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 22

Beg, borrow, or steal the book from your friend.

I had the same question going in, and was delighted at the various stories and episodes that delved into the question of how she managed to keep going.

Most powerful to me was early on, when there seemed to be no movement, no community support, and no sense of success even on the horizon, it was a two week Highlander training that made a real impact on her. From the book:

She found “for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, that there was such a thing as people of all races and backgrounds meeting and having workshops and living together in peace and harmony.” The atmosphere proved a salve for some of the psychic exhaustion she had been feeling and began to transform what Parks imagined was possible, a society not riven by racism. “I had heard there was such a place, but I hadn’t been there.”

Later, she wrote “Desegregation proves itself by being put into action. Not changing attitudes, attitudes will change.” In other words, she discovered at Highlander that in taking action, society is changed. You don’t change the attitudes first and then look for change. Make the changes happen, and the attitudes will follow.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:32 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 22

She struggled to the end of her life–and kept going, year after year, partly because she had a deep Christian faith and partly because she was a race woman and saw it as her responsibility. Many of the issues she was working on at the end and over the course of her life are still pressing–a fair and just criminal justice system, equitable schooling and black history in all parts of the curriculum, economic justice, an end to US wars of imperialism.

bgrothus February 23rd, 2013 at 2:32 pm

But that idea takes on a much different valence in the 1990s and 2000s when this mythology helps to inscribe a notion of a post-racial America where the civil rights movement is honored and structural racism is treated as a thing of the past.

This is an understatement. Did Mrs. Parks talk about it in her later years?

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:32 pm

The whole thing can be found in her collection “Undersong”

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Seems like Parks has been an icon for so long (I live in Grand Rapids, so we’ve already got a statue and square named for her) but she’s always been a cipher.

But I would also imagine that people who knew her work — or their kids and friends — would be really grateful to finally have a nuanced story of her told.

One of the reasons I asked about the labor and class aspect above is because her story has too often been described as a black story, and not a gender/class/general organizing story. I hope this changes that.

bgrothus February 23rd, 2013 at 2:34 pm

Thanks, I guess I was on the same track, here we “buy you a beverage” of your choice when it happens. Salud!

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:34 pm

As a preacher who loves to tell stories, I am well aware that how you refer to people shapes what they hear. I was intrigued by your frequent use of “Mrs. Parks” and “Parks”, rather than “Rosa” or “Rosa Parks”, which you explain in the introduction as a conscious decision to provide “a form of respect that white people of the era routinely denied black women and the way may people who respected her referred to her.”

What led you to decide to follow this path? Was there a particular conversation with someone, or after reading a particular letter, at which point you said “Here’s how I’ll refer to her. . .”?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:35 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 24

Curiously, the FBI claimed not to have any files on Rosa or Raymond Parks–that they’d had only one from the Detroit office and it had been destroyed. Yet I found references to Parks in other files pertaining to her work in Montgomery–often with her name in capital letters (which typically means they would have been keeping a file on her).

bgrothus February 23rd, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Thank you so much for coming by FDL today, Jeanne. I can’t stay but will certainly read the book. I am at a low ebb these days and need a lift. I am sure the story of Mrs. Parks will be a wonderful tonic.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:37 pm

And it captures the same dynamic that you have with Mrs. Parks.

Let’s make her safe, so we don’t have to come to terms with just how bad she was treated.

Let’s depoliticize her, so we don’t have to come to terms with today’s politics around race and class and gender.

Let’s turn her into an accident, so that we don’t have to come to terms with just how deliberately she and others were hurt and marginalized and how deliberately she and others had to fight to overcome it.

By all means, let’s make her safe.

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Right. I was familiar with that much about her file. That’s part of what got me wondering. How much were they infiltrating these groups? How many activists had turned informant?

I know that’s really hard to tease out, but the tensions you described, particularly on lines of class/politics made me wonder.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:39 pm
In response to Peterr @ 26

I choose to refer to her as Parks because this is how scholars who write biographies refer to their subjects (even though this is actually what she and others called her husband).

I choose to call her Mrs. Parks for two key reasons: 1) as a reminder of the racial climate that she lived, that she and other black women were regularly denied such honorifics and so that is how people who respected her referred to her and 2) because we are so used to hearing ‘Rosa Parks’ and believing we know her, that this was a way to be more formal and to step back and ask us to look at her again.

bgrothus February 23rd, 2013 at 2:39 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 43

Eww, sorry, that does not sound the way I wanted it to sound. I need inspiration, and I am sure I will be inspired by the book. Thank you.

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 2:40 pm
In response to Peterr @ 44

One of the things the book makes very graphic in that sense is the sexual danger, both rape of women and false accusations of men. That’s something we of course know, but the book does make it clear how pervasive it is as another race-based pressure.

I also couldn’t hep but imagine that in another time Parks would have made a great lawyer, she spent so much time documenting crimes.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:40 pm

Unbelievable.

Did you try to locate files for other activists like E.D. Nixon, Vernon Johns, or others from Montgomery who would likely have had files that included references to her?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:42 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 27

I think there was something spontaneous in her action (she didn’t get on the bus planning this action)–and something very thoughtful, considered, and born of years of gathering knowledge, courage, fortitude and skills (partly learned at Highlander) in her stand as well.

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 2:44 pm
In response to Peterr @ 49

It was Nixon that got me wondering about it, actually, because of his Sleeping Car Porters activism.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:45 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 48

The section that describes her starting to work for Conyers really grabbed me. It describes how she basically became the informal leader of his district office, albeit “within a gender-appropriate role, answering phones, handling constituent needs, welcoming visitors, and coordinating the office”. She did, though, become “Conyers’ surrogate in the city, doing community work, keeping a pulse on the most pressing issues, and demonstrating the congressman’s commitment to community struggles.”

I wonder how many congressional staffers who will be at next week’s unveiling of her statue will know that she was a congressional staffer for over 2 decades.

masaccio February 23rd, 2013 at 2:46 pm

It takes a special kind of person to do the kinds of things she did, especially in standing up for the Scottsboro Boys and dealing with crimes against her community that were not being investigated. How strong a role did her faith play in setting her on this course?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:47 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 37

Yes, she very much struggled with it. She often hoped she “wouldn’t have to keep telling this one story” until the end of her life. In another interview, she talked about how it like pulling off a scab over and over. Yet, at the same time, she understood she was a symbol and that movements need symbols–and she was a movement woman and willing to do what it took to keep it going (and she believed part of that was continuing to show up, and be the symbol to carry the history and movement forward).

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 2:47 pm

She lived until 2005. How did she react to one iconic event: Reagan launching his prez campaign in Philadephia, MS, and then to the subsequent erosion of civil rights in the 25 years that followed?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:48 pm
In response to BooRadley @ 30

Thanks for the excitement!

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Jeanne:

I’m going to have to move to following along on my phone now, but one personal question. I think you and I were in a class at UM together–maybe Francis Aparicio’s? (I’m Marcy Wheeler in real life.) Am I remembering right?

In any case, thanks so much for joining us–great book. I wish you great success with it.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Also, she continued to surround herself with other activists–and was inspired and inspired many of them–Ella Baker, Septima Clark, MLK, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Queen Mother Moore, Ericka Huggins, and on.

She continued on and participated in and alongside the Black Power movements. Many of these young epopel drew strength from her support and she drew inspiration and energy from them. One of her core beliefs was in the power and potential of young people.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Real life events are often a combination of planning & serendipity. I didn’t mean to imply that what Parks did didn’t come from her personal courage, but rather what I learned about the context of it was new information to me.

I think about this in the context of current flailing around of efforts to retain rights. Few organized movements, little planning. Afican-American civil rights campaign in the 1950s was very different.

Teddy Partridge February 23rd, 2013 at 2:54 pm

You’ve had a wide-ranging speaking schedule subsequent to the book’s publication, I see. When you speak to people nowadays, what is the thing they are most surprised about Mrs Parks? Where does your much more complete narrative find incongruity with what your audience believes about her?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:55 pm
In response to bgrothus @ 37

Yes, she definitely believed there was much racial and social injustice in America that needed to be addressed–and over and over she said that the movement was not over and people needed to keep fighting and struggling for justice.

She and many civil rights activists had fought hard for a holiday for King–and then when the King holiday did get institutionalized, she didn’t like the ways that he got turned into a fuzzy, dreamy King (not the powerful, urgently eloquent comrade she had known).

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:57 pm
In response to Peterr @ 52

One of the people I interviewed who had worked with her at Conyers’ office described her as “fearless.” The theme was echoed in interviews I did with other Detroit activists.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 2:58 pm
In response to masaccio @ 53

My sense was that her faith was a cornerstone for her–deeply sustaining. My book only touches on her faith a bit; I think a whole book could be written on it, if someone wanted to delve into that research.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 2:58 pm

With regard to young people, that’s something that many folks don’t realize with the two dimensional pictures. She was 42 when she was arrested — not young, but not a wise old woman in the community.

At 27, Bob Graetz was fresh out of seminary in his first congregation, and MLK was only 26.

On the other end of things were older folks more inclined to be less confrontational, and wanting things to move more incrementally.

How much of her belief in the power of young people was shaped by the her perception that older people just didn’t get it when it came to making social change?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:00 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 55

She was very discouraged by Reaganism. Her autobiography Rosa Parks: My Story ends with this theme.

RevBev February 23rd, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Her faith was mentioned above. Would you say that was the source
of much of her fearlessness? She certainly saw ample danger and
cruelty.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:01 pm

“Fearless” is a rare and wonderful human quality. Did you garner insights about what put her in such rare company?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:01 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 57

Yes, I did my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in American Culture and studied with Frances Aparicio.

RevBev February 23rd, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I think you just answered the faith question…Thanks

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Speaking of research . . .

You mention in the introduction that most of her papers are caught in a struggle between the Parks family on the one hand and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Foundation (that she founded) on the other, and that a probate judge has ordered them sold with the proceeds to be divided between the parties.

This sounds like a truly Solomonic decision, in that there is the potential for these papers to be scattered or lost, depending on who ultimately purchases them and what they decide to do with them.

Where do things stand with regard to her papers today?

(And I agree completely with your comment that the auction house seems to be diminishing Parks’ importance as a “serious political thinker”.)

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Reagan must have been emotionally difficult for Parks to handle.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:05 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 71

I think the reverse is also true.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:05 pm
In response to Peterr @ 70

Why can’t the two sides copy the other side’s papers, so both have either originals or copies?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:07 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 59

Indeed. I think one of the stories that hits a huge chord for me is that on the last day of her Highlander workshop, they do the “what are you going to do when you go back home” go-around. And she basically says: there’s never going to be a movement in Montgomery, it’s the Cradle of the Confederacy and the resistance is too great and black people are not unified. So she didn’t know–and worried, like we worry, that such mass movements are not possible.

And even when the Women’s Political Council on the night of her arrest called for a 1-day boycott (because that’s what the call was at first–just a 1-day boycott), many of these organizers worried about whether that would succeed. For me, part of the lesson in her story is that she had been doing things and trying things and being politically active for more than a decade. And then her bus stand that night aligned with history, with people being ready, with a number of people in place with ideas and organizing experience and so it galvanized a movement. We don’t know when history will change, when that moment is until we’re long in the midst of it.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:09 pm

I think just the fullness and span of her political life–how many movements she took part in, how progressive and persistent she was long after the boycott.

bmaz February 23rd, 2013 at 3:09 pm

Jeanne, foremost, thank you for joining us here at Firedoglake.

As an extension of Rosa, and the beautiful picture you paint of her in your book, I am curious how her thoughts and inner will translate into the busses of resistance today. Specifically, Barack Obama famously sat in Rosa’s bus (See here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/45/Barack_Obama_in_the_Rosa_Parks_bus.jpg

and made a point of feeling her pain; what would Rosa think of Mr. Obama’s modern parallel in regard to the plight of the sexually, as opposed to racially, diverse?

Mr. Obama seems to, despite a supposed Constitutional training, not draw an equivalence between the plight of racial equality and sexual equality, in the modern framework.

How would you, and how would Rosa, speak to this clear equivalence of plight and thought in the modern world?

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:09 pm
In response to Peterr @ 72

Heh. Not particularly interested in Reagan’s emotional struggles. He had power. That should be enough.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:10 pm
In response to Peterr @ 64

Yes, by the time of her bus arrest, she was quite discouraged by the ‘adults’ of the community and was putting more of her hopes in the young people. What she resolves to do when she leaves Highlander is keep working with the young people. That belief that young people are where it’s at in terms of hope and energy and potential carries throughout her life.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful response. Holloway, covering more than 150 years of history in 25 lectures, could not go into detail on any aspect of that 150 years. I was sentient for maybe 50 (senior white woman). Now that a large part of my life has turned into history, I become increasing interested in learning about what I lived thru while doing other stuff.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:14 pm
In response to Peterr @ 70

An auction house here in Manhattan was charged five years ago with selling her papers and effects. The court stipulated that everything had to be sold together. The collection has an extraordinary price tag of $8-10 million which puts most institutions that Rosa Parks cared about out of the running. The collection still has not sold and no scholar has yet gotten to appraise the papers (which would be unthinkable, I think, if she was regarded as a serious political thinker like King or Robert Kennedy or Eleanor Roosevelt).

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:15 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 73

The papers and her other effects (dresses, hats, medals, sewing basket, eyeglasses) are all being sold.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:16 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 73

I think it’s not so much about having access to the papers as much as it is about having the prestige of owning them as well as the financial worth of them (potential publishing rights, movie rights, fees from museum exhibits, etc.).

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:18 pm

So they view it as akin to selling Abigail Adams dresses and stuff, as opposed to John Adams’ papers?

I’m curious as to how they placed a value on them, given that they haven’t had a scholar give them a close look.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Oy, what a pity. Why are they being sold? Who needs the money? Who are the potential buyers? What are their motives?

Don’t want to sidetrack the thread on that issue, but if there are simple answers do tell.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:19 pm
In response to bmaz @ 76

President Obama’s decision to tweet that picture puts himself in her shoes, audaciously locates himself in her legacy. But I would argue that doing so requires something of him, of us–that kind of independent and steadfast courage that she embodied; that willingness to take stand after stand, year after year, decade after decade; that belief that the movement is not over. It is not enough to honor her legacy with a stamp or a statue. More is required of us as a nation.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:20 pm
In response to Peterr @ 82

Thanks Peterr.

No accounting for chance to make a buck, no matter what gets trashed in the process.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:21 pm
In response to Peterr @ 82

Yes, part of the reasoning the auction house has given for not showing any scholars is that whoever buys it can then show it to the world. It’s very much treating her as a celebrity commodity.

I like the parallel to Abigail Adams or Dolly Madison.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Women as a commodity.

Why am I not surprised.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:23 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 84

There was a dispute in her estate between the Institute she had founded and her family. A probate judge decided that all her stuff would be collected and sold by this auction house and the proceeds split between the parties.

As far as I know, there has been interest over the past five years but no buyers yet. It’s a prohibitive amount of money–and most institutions are not equipped to handle both the papers and the material effects.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:24 pm

The story of Parks’ appearance in 1980 on “To Tell the Truth” was the perfect encapsulation of the second half of the book. The prim, proper, pearl-wearing quiet churchgoing imposter was seen by two of the three panelists as more “believable” than the real Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Teddy Partridge February 23rd, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Do you see a parallel between the backgrounding of Mrs Parks’ race work activism and Bayard Rustin’s open homosexuality? Only now is he being fully credited with organizing the March on Washington, just as only now do we have a biography of Mrs Parks that fully credits her movement skills.

Is there a certain historical distance required for mainstream America to accept the fullness of character of these symbols? Or is this subordinating to the movement something required of African-Americans specifically?

tejanarusa February 23rd, 2013 at 3:26 pm

So glad to see this Book Salon. I have just bought the book but no chance to read it yet. I knew something of her activist history with NAACP and Highlander, but didn’t know she worked for Conyers.
I hope your book makes people aware of how much more important she was than her one famous act.
Thank you for writing it.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:27 pm
In response to RevBev @ 66

She is amazingly steadfast. At the same, she struggles over and over with burn-out (to use a modern word), with having to keep going when things seem bleak. Part of why she goes to Highlander in the summer of 1955 is that her friend and employer, white civil rights ally Virginia Durr, can see how downcast she is and thinks it will be good for renewing and uplifting her spirit.

RevBev February 23rd, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Even though the court is already involved, couldn’t the parties come to
some sort of agreement? Sounds like they would be the ones to make some
sort of reasonable decision…..if such a buyer is so unlikely. Thanks for
the update.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:28 pm
In response to Peterr @ 90

Yes. This episode of To Tell the Truth where there are three Rosa Parkses (the real one and two women playing her) that I describe is on youtube so people can see it for themselves. It’s unbelievable to watch.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:29 pm

It’s a prohibitive amount of money

If there are no buyers, why is it a prohibitive amount of money? Supply & demand. No demand, low price.

Some institutional reason, like need to cover estate expenses?

Never mind. Probate is neither rational nor pleasant. Dickens figured it out, though he would not have been the first.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Oh my goodness . . .

Here’s the video.

I’ve got it playing in the background in another tab on my browser, and I can’t help but think of how the introductory comments were about the symbol as opposed to the person.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:31 pm
In response to tejanarusa @ 92

Thanks for buying the book. Half the book deals with her political life after the boycott. She actively opposes US involvement in Vietnam; she attends the National Black Political Convention in 1972; she visits the Black Panther school; she meets and hears Malcolm X (who she describes as her personal hero) three times. There is so much to her political life.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:32 pm

You write about the interview Mrs Parks did where she surprised the interviewer by naming Malcolm X as her hero, rather than (what was expected by the interviewer) Martin Luther King. Parks and MLK are linked by the obvious shared experience of Montgomery, but that wasn’t enough for her to say Martin rather than Malcolm to the interviewer.

How surprised are your students (or others) when they read this?

bmaz February 23rd, 2013 at 3:33 pm

JEANNE!!! Exactly!

Thank you for that response. I absolutely support your words, though I know you cannot speak for Rosa.

But, as Ted Kennedy famously said, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die”.

I think Ms. Parks is the epitome of that concept, and I think her force lives on in the civil rights battles, maybe of another or diffuse color (or sex), lives on today. Her battle and that of America for equality under the Constitution, are not over.

To your knowledge, does Rosa have any input on the modern incarnation of the equal protection struggle she germinated?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:33 pm

This is an interesting comparison. I think what’s a bit different about Parks is that everyone knows her name. She is arguably now one of the most well-known Americans of the 20th century. And yet she has been reduced to a children’s book heroine, famous for one act on one day.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:34 pm
In response to Peterr @ 99

Surprised. Very surprised and thrilled. She’s so much more substantive and interesting than we knew.

eCAHNomics February 23rd, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Good to know that she appreciated the greater black militancy that grew out of the frustrations of not being treated equally. Given what little I know about her starting point, that must have involved much personal development.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:36 pm
In response to Peterr @ 97

One of the funny things about the show is that the real Rosa Parks is giving these thoughtful, detailed answers. But that’s not as interesting or compelling to the panel as the symbol.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:37 pm

That, and Nipsy Russell’s questions. As soon as he started talking, it was obvious he knew Mrs Parks.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:38 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 103

Many of the issues that get taken up during Black Power are issues that she had been working on for decades. She is a lifelong believer in self defense, in independent black political power, in labor militancy and economic justice, in the need for black history in all parts of the curriculum.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:40 pm
In response to Peterr @ 105

Yes, and even this obviousness (that Nipsey Russell is asking her pointed questions about the role and help of artists like Harry Belafonte in the struggle) doesn’t clue the other panelists. We see what we want–or are used to–seeing.

Teddy Partridge February 23rd, 2013 at 3:41 pm
In response to Peterr @ 97

Wow, that is amazing.

RevBev February 23rd, 2013 at 3:42 pm

You may have already said words about this….But would you describe how
your own interest developed….how she as topic became so important to
you. Thanks.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Nikki Giovanni appears occasionally in the book, but her comment on the back cover is priceless:

Just as the Lincoln Memorial needs a statue of Frederick Douglass gently bending over with a pen in his hand for Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. nees a statue of Rosa Parks just one or two steps ahead mouthing the words “Come on, Dr. King. We’ve got work to do.”

How did you come to connect with Giovanni in particular, and others more generally? Did you go to her/them, or did word get around about your book project and she/they sought you out?

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I do think it’s interesting how often Rosa Parks is described as “not-angry” in the eulogies/obituaries–as if you could do what she did without being deeply outraged, without being deeply angry, about injustice. And yet, as a nation, we seem to want our heroines, our black heroines, ‘not angry.’

tejanarusa February 23rd, 2013 at 3:43 pm

I must run. Thank you for your thoughtful answers. I amgoing to try to read as much of the book as possible tonight.
Thanks again.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:48 pm
In response to RevBev @ 109

I first got interested in this during her funeral–and I gave a talk on it and the memorialization of the civil rights movement (and the place the movement occupies in our national politics). She died two months after Hurricane Katrina and so I don’t think we can understand the national reaction to her death–and the decision for her to lie in honor at the Capitol (she is the first woman and second African American ever to lie there)–apart from this larger political context.

I was asked to turn the talk into a book chapter and as I began to try to fill out the piece, I realized how much there was to her story and then how little research had actually been done on her.

I came to this project having spent a decade researching the civil rights movement in the North so her later life in Detroit (they move to Detroit in 1957 and she spends the rest of her life there) was particularly intriguing to me. But this required a great deal of research.

Teddy Partridge February 23rd, 2013 at 3:49 pm

I think our president internalized, during his upbringing, how important that characterization is to White America: being the “angry Black man” seems to be the thing he avoids the most. Even when any other president would be truly angry, and show it (when his wife or his children are attacked) he doesn’t respond angrily.

But, yes, “not-angry” has a very high value for the previously oppressed, among The Oppressors.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:49 pm

If they are angry, that means there might be something that they are angry about, and we’d rather not look at that.

I liked the way you captured the tension in that for Parks. On the one hand, she is angry and wants change. She wants justice for the girls who were raped, and equity for everyone who gets on the bus. On the other hand, she realizes political realities, and takes certain actions for strategic reasons (or allows others to take actions without contradicting them).

In my experience in political organizing, this kind of tension is part and parcel of life for activists, and seeing it spelled out in detail in your book made your portrait of Parks that much more compelling.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:51 pm
In response to Peterr @ 110

I love Nikki Giovanni’s poem for Rosa Parks “Harvest.” So I had asked if I could include a stanza of it. Then I did an interview with her as part of my research for the book—which really enriched my thinking and the book.

BevW February 23rd, 2013 at 3:52 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon discussion,

Jeanne, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, and Mrs. Parks lifetime of activism.

Peterr, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Jeanne’s website and book

Peterr’s website

Thanks all, Have a great weekend.

Tomorrow: Chad Nackers and Alex Blechman / The President of Vice: The Autobiography of Joe Biden (The Onion); Hosted by Watertiger

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

FDL Book Salon has a Facebook page too

karenjj2 February 23rd, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Thank you for being with us today, Jeanne, and giving us a portrait of an extraordinary woman.

Elliott February 23rd, 2013 at 3:55 pm

Great discussion today. Thank you.

Best of luck with the book tour.

RevBev February 23rd, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Thanks for the picture….says alot. Interesting to me also how much she
had to do for her family….husband and mother.

Peterr February 23rd, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Jeanne, thanks so much for a delightful discussion. I enjoyed your book a great deal, and the conversation here even more so.

And what I said above to bgrothus above goes for everyone who hasn’t read it yet. Or better yet, buy a copy so that Jeanne gets at least a pittance in royalties for her work!

CTuttle February 23rd, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Mahalo, Jeanne and Peterr for this excellent Book Salon…!

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:57 pm
In response to Peterr @ 115

There’s this scene very early on in Parks’ life where she confronts a white bully and picks up a brick (and he backs down). Then, she comes home and tells her grandmother about it. And her grandmother gets angry and tells the young Rosa that she can’t do that because she’s going to get herself lynched. And the young Rosa feels like her grandmother has betrayed her and tells her that she would rather be lynched. But clearly, her grandmother is trying to teach her a lesson about survival. I think Rosa Parks learned to walk a difficult line of a kind of controlled anger/militancy. She maintained extraordinary composure in public, despite being confronted by all sorts of hatefulness.

Jeanne Theoharis February 23rd, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Thanks for a lovely discussion.

Teddy Partridge February 23rd, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Thank you so much for taking time on the weekend to chat with us about your book, and thanks to Peter for a wonderful introduction. I’m looking forward to finishing this book; everyone should find a copy and read it!

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 4:11 pm

That’s it then. It was a class on Latin American pop culture, probably in 1995. I did my PhD in CompLit.

emptywheel February 23rd, 2013 at 4:26 pm

I was wondering if it was also a preconception about skin color. She was quite light skinned, but I imagine a lot of white people assume she must appear darker skinned, forgetting how mix-raced the South (and the US generally) really was and is.

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