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The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

A new scholarly biography examines the life Rosa Parks – the icon America embraced yet never really knew.

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Her acts of resistance began small and early – she refused to drink from segregated water fountains – then public and even life-threatening – she registered to vote and assisted others “despite enormous poll taxes and the unfair registration tests.” She was Montgomery’s NAACP secretary, long aligned with controversial activist E.D. Nixon; she experienced interracial leadership training and race equality at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

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This was the seasoned, knowledgeable Parks who boarded an evening bus on December 1, 1955, and refused to give up her seat – she was the third, not first, African American woman who refused to get up, but unlike the previous two who were teenagers, Parks was “middle-aged, religious, of good character … respected.” Her arrest sparked a year-long bus boycott that catapulted young Martin Luther King, Jr. into the spotlight, and changed history forever.

Her courage had severe personal consequences, conveniently elided by history. She lost that seamstress job – she was actually a skilled “assistant tailor,” another detail overshadowed by her humbling myth. Raymond lost his. Her mother fell ill, Parks herself was riddled with ulcers, Raymond drank heavily. The family was constantly harassed. Parks reluctantly traveled without pay across the country at the behest of fellow male activist leaders; as “the proper kind of symbol,” Parks was regularly seen but rarely heard.

Unable to find work in Montgomery, the Parkses moved to Detroit to join family, and spent a decade suffering dire financial straits; the hate mail and death threats continued. The “Northern Promised Land” had all the same civil rights challenges as the South, yet Parks never lost hope, continuing her activism for almost another half-century. She found inspiration in the Black Power movement, protested wars, fought to educate and empower the youth, even after she was mugged in her own home. Financial stability finally came with her “first ... paid political position” in the office of US Congressman John Conyers which would last over 20 years.

With Parks’ death, her literal history became mired in legal disputes. Although the “‘first’ installment” of her papers were donated to Wayne State University in 1976, “a vast trove ... sits in a storage facility in Manhattan, of use to no one, priced at $6 million to $10 million.” The “celebrity auction house,” Guernsey’s, has been trying to sell the Rosa Parks Archive for five years, “steadfastly unwilling to let any scholar make even a cursory examination.”

February 4 marks Parks’ 100th birthday: the Archives’ release could be a most significant public gift. Until that happens, Theoharis’ “Rebellious Mrs. Parks,” in spite of frustrating flaws, provides the most illuminating, necessary insight into a needs-to-be-retired legacy that deserves heightened attention and renewed respect.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

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