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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.

By Terry Hong / January 30, 2013

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks By Jeanne Theoharis Beacon Press 336 pp.

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Already designated “definitive political biography” on its back cover, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Brooklyn College political science professor Jeanne Theoharis will reside in my personal reading history as the most difficult book I’ve ever reviewed. Never before – and hopefully never again – have I faced such a vast divide between significant content and frustrating execution. As the most exhaustively researched biography thus far on Rosa Parks, Theoharis’ new title is inarguably an essential addition to any library or classroom, and yet readers will need serious patience to sift through tedious repetition, fragmented chronology, and countless "might have/could have" assumptions to reach the final page.

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Fable, myth, caricature are not words historically linked to Rosa Parks, who is publicly remembered as the quiet, tired seamstress whose refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus sparked the US civil rights movement. When she died at 92 in 2005, Parks became the first woman and second African American to have her body lie in state in the US Capitol Rotunda; 40,000 – including President and Mrs. George W. Bush – bore witness, with additional mourners paying tribute at overflowing memorials held in Montgomery, and Detroit, where Parks spent more than half of her life.

“[T]he woman who emerged in the public tribute bore only a fuzzy resemblance to Rosa Louise Parks,” Theoharis proves. “[R]epeatedly defined by one solitary act on the bus,” Theoharis insists Parks was “stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice.” Instead, “the public spectacle provided an opportunity for the nation to lay rest a national heroine and its own history of racism.” In other words: 50 years earlier, this tired woman couldn’t sit on a bus, but look where she’s lying now.

Theoharis “was captivated and then horrified by the national spectacle made of her death.” She gave a talk about “its caricature of [Parks] and, by extension, its misrepresentation of the civil rights movement,” which she was asked to turn into an article: “It became clear how little we actually knew about Rosa Parks.” Even "Rosa Parks: A Life," the biography by lauded historian Douglas Brinkley, "is “pocket-sized, un-footnoted,” while the autobiography Parks wrote with Jim Haskins, “Rosa Parks: My Story,” is targeted for young adult readers. “[T]he lack of scholarly monograph on Parks," Theoharis observes, "is notable.”

More than a personal biography, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” (Theoharis uses the honorific Mrs. to add "a degree of dignity, distance, and formality to mark that she is not fully ours as a nation to appropriate")  is a political reclamation of Parks’ almost-70 years of activism. As the grandchild of slaves, Parks knew “[f]rom an early age, ... ‘we were not free.’” Pushed by her mother, a teacher, towards an education, “her discovery of black history in high school was transformative.” Family responsibilities kept Parks from finishing 11th grade; she wanted to be nurse or social worker, never a teacher after the “’humiliation and intimidation’” she watched her mother endure. Her husband Raymond Parks was “’the first real activist I ever met.’”

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