Happy birthday, Rosa Parks! Born on February 4, 1913, Parks was not a tired old lady in 1955, when she refused to move to the back of the bus. She was an experienced and committed activist, deeply tied into the activist networks that animated the civil rights movement. She wasn’t the only one who took a risk to challenge segregation laws in the South, but that hardly makes her less heroic.
Activism in the civil rights movement was hardly a career move for Rosa Parks. She paid a serious price over many years for stepping outside of expected norms of behavior and into history. Her role in sparking the bus boycott brought her a bit of celebrity that made it hard to find work in Montgomery, and soon afterward, she and her husband moved to Detroit, where she continued her activism.
Jeanne 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. Theoharis describes 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.
And recognizing that Rosa Parks is only one of the best known of many many civil rights heroes suggests the possibility that each of us could also, one day, step into history.
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