ROSA PARKS AT 100: Reasons to read Theoharis!


Interlude—Things you can learn from her book: Before we return to the myths and legends which emerge from Professor Theoharis’ book, let’s take consider some reasons why her book is well worth reading.

There is a great deal a person can learn from the life of Rosa Parks. In our view, Theoharis tends to be doctrinaire and is strongly inclined to advance new myths about Mrs. Parks.

But for those who want to negotiate those inclinations, Theoharis’ book is full of information about the life and the times of Rosa Parks—and Mrs. Parks, who was born in 1913, was still an active force in the world right through the 1990s. There are many parts of her life a modern reader might want to consider.

Today, we’ll mention just two:

We’re not sure we previously understood the suffering Mrs. Parks endured because of her refusal to surrender her seat on a bus—because of her agreement to let her case be the focus of the Montgomery boycott. She and her husband lost their jobs and became essentially unemployable. As this was happening, a year of death threats led to serious, ongoing health problems for Mrs. Parks and for her husband—and for Mrs. Parks’ mother.

In part due to of the loss of employment, health treatment couldn’t be paid for or sought.

It seems to us that the story of this subsequent suffering is one of the parts of Mrs. Parks’ life that ought to be understood better as we learn to honor the sacrifices made by the people who created the civil rights movement.

In part, this aspect of Mrs. Parks’ reflects a failure of that movement—its failure to attend to the suffering visited on the Parks family. About a year after her most famous act, the Parks family moved to Detroit, hoping to find employment and escape the death threats. Driving this need was the failure of the budding civil rights movement to help the Parks family with the financial struggles Mrs. Parks’ courageous act had created. As has long been noted, the civil rights movement involved human beings, not gods—and the particular humans who led this movement were not infallible moral creatures. Male chauvinism was one part of the movement, as was true of the subsequent, largely white anti-war movement. There were also elements of class chauvinism, in which college-educated movement leaders separated themselves from those who were not so blessed.

Theoharis’ book discusses these problems. In her research, Theoharis found a chapter outline for the autobiography Mrs. Parks published in 1992, Rosa Parks: My Story. The chapter in question, “In the Shadows,” didn't appear in the book which was actually published. But according to Theoharis, this was part of the text of the chapter outline:

"Jealousy and dissension within the Montgomery Improvement Association—Rosa Parks has lost her job at Montgomery Fair department store over the incident that sparked the boycott and feels that she should be given a job with the Montgomery Improvement Association—but King refuses, and Rosa feels angry—she goes through extreme financial difficulties—by the time Rosa is offered a job in the voter registration drive that King decides to start, she has accepted a job at Hampton [Institute]."

Warning: That language may not capture Parks’ feelings about these matters. But for our money, this part of the Parks story provides a window into the moral greatness that existed among so many of the people who drove the civil rights movement—moral greatness which was to some extent forced upon them by the appalling culture within which they’d been forced to live.

In her autobiography, Mrs. Park decided not to complain about this part of her life. That said, was she disregarded within the movement because she wasn’t a college graduate? That’s certainly possible, and it brings us to the second aspect of Mrs. Parks’ life which comes to life in Theoharis’ book, despite the ambient myth-making. To wit:

To a highly unusual degree, Rosa Parks was mentally active all through her long life. She was raised by mentally active people, but very few southern blacks even finished high school when Mrs. Parks was young. She herself was forced to leave school in eleventh grade to care for her mother and grandmother.

Later, she did receive her high school degree, but she never attended college. As such, her life story is that of a person who was mentally active to a very unusual degree, but was denied the opportunity for what we call “formal education.”

Simply put, the vast majority of college graduates aren’t nearly as smart or as mentally active as Mrs. Parks seems to have been all through her long life. Theoharis’ book provides the chance to ponder this great contradiction. Theoharis stresses the “rebellious” strain she finds in Mrs. Parks’ life. We think that word barely begins to capture the depth and the complexity of the life Theoharis describes.

What was Mrs. Parks actually like? Theoharis is a bit of a throwback to an earlier age of doctrinaire pseudo-lefties. But if you can negotiate that part of her book, the book is very much worth reading. That said, if you can’t find Theoharis’ book at your local library, you might consider Mrs. Parks’ own autobiography or Douglas Brinkley’s biography, Rosa Parks: A Life, which appeared in 2000.

Last weekend, all copies of Theoharis’ book had been checked out of our own downtown Enoch Pratt Library. But several copies of Brinkley’s biography sat on the shelves, as did several copies of Mrs. Parks’ autobiography.

What was Brinkley’s biography like? When it appeared, Michael Lomax reviewed it for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. At the time, Lomax was president of that city’s Dillard University, an historically black university.

He was also quite insightful—a very good writer/reviewer. What follows is a chunk of his review (no link available).

Lomax saw the mystery at the heart of this story. Every word here is worth reading:
LOMAX (6/4/00): "A few days ago I met Rosa Parks," wrote Eleanor Roosevelt in 1956. "She is a very quiet, gentle person and it is difficult to imagine how she ever could take such a positive and independent stand."

Nearly a half century after her famous refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger, there has been no full or satisfactory answer to the questions, "Why this woman?" "Why that day?"

Happily for us, New Orleans historian Douglas Brinkley has decided to answer the questions with his new biography of Rosa Parks. He has done so in a thorough and readable short life of Parks, part of a series of Penguin biographies designed for the general reader.

A scholar of the period and an obvious admirer of Parks, Brinkley goes about the task of filling in the personal details of her life and placing his subject in the context of her times. We learn, for example, that Parks was influenced deeply by her maternal grandfather, an admirer of Marcus Garvey's back-to-Africa philosophy, who guarded his family at night with a shotgun, protection against the Ku Klux Klan that roamed their rural Alabama community.

Importantly, we learn of Parks' long-standing behind-the-scenes activism as a stalwart volunteer in the Montgomery NAACP chapter and the training as an activist she received at the controversial Highlander School in Tennessee. There, she met South Carolina activist Septima Clark, a role model for women in the too often male-dominated civil rights movement.

In one sense, the portrait that emerges from Brinkley's work is the one we have known all along. Rosa Parks remains a prim, reserved, and deeply religious woman who responded to the stormy events of Montgomery with quiet dignity.

Beneath that surface, Brinkley also portrays a woman of steely determination who worked throughout her adult life to challenge racial segregation and discrimination in the South. Though Parks only became an international figure of resistance at the age of 42, Montgomery's black religious and civic leaders knew and admired her for many years prior to that for her hard work and dedication to the unpaid administration of the local NAACP chapter.

The details of her life Brinkley uncovers go far to explain why this gentle woman, on an evening in December 1955, would have the temerity to refuse an order to get out of her seat on a bus just because her skin was dark. In a sense, her entire life had been preparation for that moment.
As Lomax describes it, Brinkley told the same story Theoharis praiases herself for telling, the story in which Mrs. Parks' entire life had been preparation for that world-famous moment. Beyond that, you’ll note that Brinkley’s biography contained many of the elements Charles Blow revealed to the world in his recent New York Times column:

Mrs. Parks’ grandfather sat on the porch with his shotgun—and he preached the philosophy of Garvey. His granddaughter had been an activist for decades before her world-famous act. She was also “a woman of steely determination who worked throughout her adult life to challenge racial segregation and discrimination in the South.”

In short, Brinkley’s book contained many of the elements you will find in Theoharis’ book, minus the effort by a rather dogmatic, slightly dishonest professor to paint herself as a cultural hero. If Theoharis’ book isn’t available, you might consider Brinkley’s earlier presentation—or you might even stoop to read what Mrs. Parks had to say about her own life.

That said, we note one further point about the Lomax review. Lomax’s mother, Almena Lomax, was herself a remarkable veteran of the civil rights era. Perhaps for this reason, Lomax seems to understand the mystery, and the question, which lie at the core of Mrs. Parks’ life:

What could possibly have given such a “quiet, gentle person” the courage to do what Mrs. Parks did? In his review, Lomax treats this as a sacred mystery, as we think is appropriate.

That said, these themes are explored in Theoharis’ book, with a frosting of dogma slathered on top. We strongly recommend her new book if you’re willing to fight your way through the new legends. But those other books are worth reading too, and they predated Theoharis’ book, whose author sometimes seems to be elevating herself at the expense of others, including Mrs. Parks.

To all appearances, Mrs. Parks was a highly unusually person—and yet, by all accounts, she was extremely quiet and unassuming. In that sense, a moral mystery lies at her core. What gave this preternaturally quiet person the steely determination which allowed her to act?

The lives of many people in the civil rights movement raise similar questions. One example:

Lomax’s mother died two years ago, at age 95. In the Los Angeles Times, Elaine Woo reported her life at the time of her death. Six years earlier, Woo had written a detailed account of Mrs. Parks’ life, an account which helps give the lie to one of the myths emerging from Theoharis’ book.

What was Almena Lomax like? To marvel at the moral mystery of the civil rights movement, go ahead—it just takes a few minutes.

Go ahead: Just click here.