At The New York Times, columnist Charles Blow is promoting a new biography of Rosa Parks. Jenane Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon) extends the story of the civil rights icon, undermining the myth of spontaneity surrounding the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The popular version of the story recounts Mrs. Parks as a tired old lady who unexpectedly decided to resist a bus driver’s order to move to the back of the bus. Citing Theoharis, Blow emphasizes the deep roots of Mrs. Parks’s activism: she was raised by a grandfather who supported Marcus Garvey, married to a long time civil rights crusader, and had served for more than a decade in a leadership role in the local NAACP. In the summer of 1955, she attended a workshop on civil rights at the Highlander Institute, where she read about civil disobedience and the Brown v. Board of Education decision. She says that she had decided to resist any directions to the back of the bus long before the opportunity presented.
Many years later, on a television game show, for example, or–more significantly–when she accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton, she could be described as an old lady. But that was 1996–forty years after refusing to move to the back of the bus.
The popular story makes activism seem like something that comes suddenly, out of nowhere, and unpredictably. The fuller tale, just like the one about the Greensboro sit-in, shows that it generally takes long and focused efforts to create those seemingly spontaneous moments.