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]