Every American is familiar with the legend of Rosa Parks. In school, many of us were taught what is essentially Rosa Parks, the myth: the sanitized-for-public-consumption story about the meek seamstress, who one day in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, after a long day of work, quietly declined to give up her seat on a bus, because her feet were tired.
Monday will mark Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday. In conjunction with this event, a new Rosa Parks biography, written by Jeanne Theoharis and titled The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, is being published. Charles Blow writes about the book (which I have not read) in his column today in The New York Times. Blow reports that the book provides a portrait of Parks that undoubtedly will seem new and unfamiliar to many Americans. Contrary to the popular imagination, the real Rosa Parks was no apolitical, unthinking naif who accidentally stumbled into an act of protest. She was in fact a lifelong activist and s***-stirrer who had long been outraged at racial injustice, had been involved with the NAACP and other civil rights groups, had attended workshops on civil disobedience, and was deeply conscious of what she was doing on that fateful day in 1955.
Those of us with more than a glancing familiarity with Rosa Parks’ story know this, of course, but the biography, which has been called definitive, fleshes out the details. Parks was a passionate political activist for decades before and decades after the Montgomery bus boycott. Yet long past the time when we all should have known better, old myths continued to be recycled. Blow writes:
When Parks died in 2005, Theoharis says, “The Rosa Parks who surfaced in the deluge of public commentary was, in nearly every account, characterized as ‘quiet.’ ‘Humble,’ ‘dignified,’ and ‘soft-spoken,’ she was ‘not angry’ and ‘never raised her voice.’ ”
Parks, like many other Americans who over the years have angrily agitated for change in this country, had been sanitized and sugarcoated for easy consumption.
As Theoharis writes: “Held up as a national heroine but stripped of her lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice, the Parks who emerged was a self-sacrificing mother figure for a nation who would use her death for a ritual of national redemption.”
The misconceptions about Parks are fascinating to me. She became a secular saint, and, I suppose, we don’t want to see our saints as ever being angry, or political. Americans sometimes distrust politics so intensely that anyone who acts with deliberate, strategic political calculation is seen as somehow morally illegitimate . . . instead of just being effective and smart.
Then, too, we in America are besotted with the myth of the heroic individual, preferring those types of legends to stories of collective action. But by denying the collective, we erase the institutions and support systems that give individuals the strength to stand up against injustice, and that make those heroic actions possible. In the case of Rosa Parks, by erasing the community of progressive African-American activists who nurtured and supported her, we also erase a crucial part of our history.
Blow writes that Theharis’ book “seeks to restore Parks’s wholeness, even at the risk of stirring unease.” I say, amen to that!