I was lucky enough to win this book as part of a Good Read’s First Reads giveaway.
“The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks,” by Jeanne Theoharris, is a look at the very full and very politically active life of Mrs Rosa Parks. Most people, when they think of Mrs Parks, think only of that defining moment on the bus, her refusal to stand. They remember the easy to digest story that she was a simple seamstress, that she was tired. But there was a lot more to her life, and her political action, than that.
Mrs Parks grew up in the very segregated south, where lynchings were common and where her daddy sometimes spent nights sitting up with a rifle across his lap just in case someone came to harass his family. She and her family members sometimes slept in their clothing just in case they had to make a quick getaway. She grew up to become a very active community organizer and to work with the NAACP for over a decade before her stance on the bus. Part of her NAACP work involved trying to press charges against the police for harassment, assault, and rape against Black members of the community. She also worked closely with two other young women who had refused to relinquish their seats to whites on the bus. When Mrs Parks refused to give up her seat she was not the first person, or the first woman, to do so. And her activism didn’t end there, either.
Mrs Parks continued working with the NAACP and MIA and other orgs both in Montgomery and then in Detroit, a move she had to make out of fear for her life (she was receiving harassing phone calls and messages and several other leaders, including Dr King, had had their homes bombed) and because nobody would hire her. In Detroit, she continued her political work. She marched, she spoke, she wrote letters, she gave interviews. She supported Black militant groups including Malcolm X, and worked to end Apartheid in South Africa.
The book touches also on the ways sexism and classism touched her life and her activism. Although male civil rights leaders referred to her as one of the “mothers of the movement,” she was often precluded from speaking while men were given the floor. She, and other working class leaders, struggled against the upper class leadership of the NAACP and other groups. Sinecures and paid positions offered to men where not offered to her, despite her experience and influence, leaving her in poverty for much of her life.
The book additionally gives a broader look at the political and social situation surrounding her refusal to move back and the ensuing bus boycot. It provides a very full look at a dark time in US history, as well as showing that much of the attitudes and opinions of then are still very much alive… and the tactics used to silence civil rights activists then are still being used now, even when they don’t make as much sense (for example, civil rights leaders were accused of being “communists,” during a time when being a communist was a career ending allegation. compare that to allegations that President Obama, pushing for a revamped insurance policy and greater social safety net, is also a communist.).
“The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks” is scholarly without being dry, interesting and horrifying, and gives a great, full look at Mrs Parks’ life and legacy as well as a pretty awful time in US history. We need more books that unflinchingly examine the struggles against racism in the US, more books like this.