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Born in rural Alabama 100 years ago, Rosa Parks grew up picking cotton from sunrise to sunset. Raised by a devoted single mother, she attended segregated schools and faced daily oppression in the Jim Crow south. But contrary to popular myth, Parks had a long history of fighting back, even before she refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus: a young Parks once tossed a brick at a white boy who teased her brother. Later, Parks joined her NAACP branch and worked to register black voters and end housing discrimination. And her activism continued even after she left Alabama for Detroit. A new biography on the life of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks.
- Jeanne Theoharis Professor, political science, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” by Jeanne Theoharis. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Most Americans think they know all about Rosa Parks, the quiet seamstress who refused to give up her seat on the bus. Her one-woman stand sparked a citywide boycott and a national civil rights movement. But in the first sweeping biography of her life, author Jeanne Theoharis contends Rosa Parks was not the accidental heroine, a popular myth. She says Parks was a savvy political activist and lifelong defender of her people's rights. The new book is titled "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks," and Jeanne Theoharis joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMI invite you to be part of the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com, follow on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Good morning to you. It's good to have you here.
MS. JEANNE THEOHARISGood morning. It's great to be here.
REHMGood. Thank you. You know, you open the book with the funeral of Rosa Parks, and you talk about the eulogies that were delivered. Say more about that.
THEOHARISSo many of the eulogies whether at -- there was a funeral, a big funeral in Detroit, but as you may remember, she lies in honor at the Capitol. She's the first woman, the second African-American, to lie in honor in the Capitol. There was also a service in Montgomery, and then there's endless media coverage. And over and over we hear her described as quiet, as not angry, as soft spoken, right? And we very rarely hear her described as a long-time political activist, as formidable, as, you know, determined, right? And so part of the impetus for my book was to sort of take apart that framing of her.
REHMWhy do you think she had been framed in that way resulting in those eulogies?
THEOHARISI mean, I think we can't understand the sort of funeral and the way that the funeral plays out without seeing it in the context that it occurs in, which is Rosa Parks passes away less than two month after Hurricane Katrina, and in many ways the travesty of federal inaction during the hurricane. And so why we sort of have this, one might say, national sort of spectacle or pageant, is in part about absolutely honoring her legacy, but there is a part of it that sort of serves that political moment very well, right? Which is, in many ways, honoring Rosa Parks becomes a way to paper over those images from New Orleans.
THEOHARISIt becomes a way to say, look, here we have this woman who was denied a seat on the bus laying in the Capitol, and it sort of tacitly says, look how far we've come.
REHMJeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at the city of New York's Brooklyn College, co-author of "Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside South, 1940 to 1980." In this hour we are talking about her newest book titled "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks." And you do use that Mrs. all the way. Talk about why.
THEOHARISThere are a couple of reasons, right? I think it's first a reminder -- for black women of Rosa Parks' generation were routinely denied that honorific. So part of it is to put her in that historical context, and to remind people that the people who respected Rosa Parks of her time always used that honorific, that Mrs. Parks. The second reason I use it, and that kind of formalness is to signal to us -- I think Rosa Parks rolls off the tongue. We all know Rosa Parks. And when you hear Mrs. Rosa Parks, I think it's a -- by adding that formality, it also, I hope, reminds people that we don't fully know her, that she's not fully ours, and that in many ways to kind of take another look.
THEOHARISAnd so that is sort of also why I decided to title the book "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks," because I think that also gets that the juxtaposition sort of, and the kind of richness of her life, right? Rebellious with Mrs. Rosa Parks.
REHMWhy do you think it's taken this long to get a really comprehensive biography of this extraordinary woman?
THEOHARISI think -- and I would count myself in this. I think many of us thought we knew her, right? And I think there has been some revisionist history on her, certainly many people have said, no, she wasn't just a seamstress, she had this career in the NAACP beforehand, she went to Highlander. But again, even that is not the fullness of even her political life before the boycott, and then almost no one, scholars, historians, had taken her life sort of really in a substantive way after the boycott.
THEOHARISAnd Rosa Parks spends more than half of her life -- more than half of her political life in Detroit, right? So this is also a different Rosa Parks than we know.
REHMShe certainly doesn't sound as though she was afraid to defend herself or her brother, as you point out in the book.
THEOHARISRight. Rosa Parks is raised by her mother and her grandparents. Very much she talks about her grandfather had a shotgun. After World War I, Klan violence worsens in Alabama, and so she remembers her grandfather sitting out on their porch with his gun to defend their house, and she remembers sitting with him. So she is -- it's sort of funny. Many of her schoolmates sort of see her a bit as a goody two shoes.
THEOHARISShe attends -- let me step back. Black students in Alabama at that time only went to school through the sixth grade. They -- there was only schooling available. And so her mother, really a great sacrifice, sends Rosa Parks to Miss White's School for Girls, which is also sort of important to her sort of development. And she...
REHMWho were the students at Miss White's School?
THEOHARISIt is a school for young black women. It is in the model of Booker T. Washington, so it is partly teaching young black women the domestic sciences. But it also is teaching them a kind of sense of kind of determination and self respect, and many of the young women who go there go onto become political activists like Rosa Parks, go onto become sort of, you know, very political, self-confident women.
THEOHARISSo she moves to Montgomery to go to this school, and she has a couple incidences -- so even though her friends kind of see her as this goody two shoes, she has this feisty side. A white bully threatens her and her brother coming home from -- coming back one day, and she picks up a brick and she threatens to hit him, and he backs down. Another incident, she is pushed off the sidewalk by a young boy, and in front of the young boy's mother, she pushes back, and the white woman says, you know, I could, you know, finish you, and Rosa Parks says back to this woman, I didn't want him pushing me, right? So she believes in self defense in many ways, gets it from her grandfather, and it continues throughout her life.
REHMAnd what are the early signs in her adulthood where she takes that one step further?
THEOHARISWell, first she marries Raymond Parks. Raymond Parks is working on defending the nine Scottsboro boys. The nine Scottsboro boys, ages 12 to 19, had been arrested on a train. They're riding the rails. Two white women are found in the car. The charge quickly turns to rape. They are very quickly sentenced to death, all except the youngest one, and so a local grassroots sort of defense movement comes up to defend these young men to try to sort of free them. It's extremely dangerous work, and Raymond Parks is working on this when she meets him. She describes him as the first real activist I ever met.
REHMHow does she meet him?
THEOHARISThrough a friend. And at first she's not interested. Interestingly, he's too light skinned for her. But then she is incredibly impressed by his spirit, right, and his sort of firmness and his pride. He drives -- he has a car at this point, and a black man driving a car, again, this is the 1930s, his own car, he's not a driver, right? This is a proud, determined black man, and Rosa Parks falls in love with him. And so she begins her sort of newlywed life sort of as he's working on this case, joining him in some of this work.
THEOHARISShe remembers these late-night meetings, these secret meetings held at their house, guns on the table. She's so scared she forgets to serve refreshments she regrets later. So this is sort of where she gets her political start with Raymond.
REHMI want to take you back a little bit, because she did -- Mrs. Rosa Parks, before she became Mrs., has to drop out of high school. How come?
THEOHARISBecause her grandmother and then mother are not well, and so she has to take care of them. She goes to work. She actually works for a time as a domestic, and her grandparents had not wanted that for her. And one of her biggest regrets is that she -- she actually finishes high school after she gets married to Raymond. So she does, you know, and also on his urging, finishes high school. She never gets to go to college. It's a huge regret of her life.
REHMThere is an incident you talk about in that time period when she's working for a white family and Mr. Charlie enters. What happens?
THEOHARISSo this is a piece of writing she appears to do in the 1950s. It's in her hand. She talks -- the narrator in the piece, which I call Rosa in the book, is working for a white couple. She's taking care of the baby at night. The white couple has gone out. A neighbor is let into the house by the black man who works there, and she calls the white man Mr. Charlie, and this is, I mean, this is a signal, right, that this is also an allegory, right?
THEOHARISMr. Charlie was a term black people at the time often used to described white people, and white people's arbitrary power. So Mr. Charlie comes in and sort of starts to drink and makes it sort of known that he wants to get with her. Rosa Parks is a small woman, and she scared, and she's writing, you know, in this account, and then her -- she thinks about Psalm 27 and then she decides to resist. And so she basically in the story harangues Mr. Charlie and says, I'm not -- you're gonna have to rape a dead body. You are, you know, why aren't white women good enough for you? Why, you know, I'm not going to go with you, and she proceeds to tell him what she's going to do.
REHMAnd all of that is in "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks."
REHMWelcome back. Jeanne Theoharis is with me. Her new book is titled "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks." Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College. Just before the brake we were talking about Rosa Parks' encounter with a man she called Mr. Charlie. How did that end?
THEOHARISSo he is trying to get with her -- or sexually assault her and she decides to resist. She tells him, you know, he's going to have to rape a dead body. She just continues to sort of make it known that she does not consent to this. And at the end of the account -- and this is in her hand -- it appears to be dated from the 1950s -- she says he stops. And so it's -- the document is a remarkable view of her political philosophy, which is that even if you're small, even if you don't seem to have a tremendous amount of power, that you resist, you tell people what you're going to do to them, you tell people you do not consent. And that sometimes this makes them back off.
THEOHARISThis is -- again, dating it, it appears that this may have happened right in the year before she meets Raymond Parks. Again, we don't know if this story is a composite story. We don't know if this happened to her, if it happened to somebody she knew, if it happened to her and turned out slightly different. But I think what it shows us is Rosa Parks' sort of political ideology in action. Now we're going to see that ideology in action over and over and over throughout the course of the rest of her life.
REHMHow were she and Raymond Parks a team?
THEOHARISWell, I think as the team begins, right, when she meets him, he's the more public activist, right. He's doing much more. And in many ways I think this contributes to her political development. He doesn't, in the '30s, want her to join the NAACP. He sees it as too dangerous. In 1943 she sees a picture in a black newspaper of an NAACP meeting and she sees a friend who had gone to Ms. White's school with her in the paper. And she realizes that women actually can be part of the branch. So she goes down to a meeting.
THEOHARISIt turns out that it's a December meeting and they have branch elections. She's the only woman there and so they elect her secretary. And so this begins her more sort public activist career. And, you know, by the '50s and '60s and '70s her and Raymond's roles will be reversed and she will be the more public activist. But he really sort of, I think, is a real-behind-the-scenes sort of support to her. He's a very political man. He's a barber. His barbershop has always been a place of discussion and debate.
THEOHARISAnd so I think we need to see that political partnership as something that kind of continues to give her sustenance sort of as she continues to do this work, both in Montgomery and then in Detroit.
REHMYou know, hearing all of this it's so interesting to note that whenever you hear the name Rosa Parks, it's always sort of ended by this seamstress, this person who came out of nowhere and simply refused to give up her seat on the bus. What you are saying is that she was schooled, she was educated, she was fortified by her own experiences.
THEOHARISAbsolutely. I think fortified is a beautiful word for what -- you know, these decades of experience to get her to this moment, right, December 1, 1955, right. To make a stand like that she is well aware of what could happen. A neighbor -- they're living in the Cleveland corp. projects when she's arrested. A neighbor of hers in 1950, a black man, a black veteran resists on the bus and is killed by police for his resistance.
THEOHARISEarlier that year in 1955 in March, a young woman Claudette Colvin, 15 years old, resist on the bus, refuses to move, is manhandled by police. There are stories of black women being taken from the bus and raped or assaulted. So she goes into that moment both knowing that, you know, what harm could befall her. But she also goes into that moment knowing -- she then spends her 1943, as we were talking about, to 1955 doing all of this NAACP work. And her and a man by the name of Edie Nixon who's a sleeping car porter, an active union man, a stalwart sort of activist, she and him really worked to transform the Montgomery branch into a more activist branch.
THEOHARISSo she's had all of these political experiences before 1955. And much of the work that they've done actually doesn't -- hasn't succeeded. So the other thing to, I think, reckon with in terms of her courage in that moment, at least for me, is that she makes the stand not necessarily believing it's going to do anything because she made so many stands and because people she'd known made stands and they hadn't done anything. And so that's a different kind of courage, right, which is to take an action even when you don't know that it's going to do anything.
REHMBut by 1955 -- in 1954 we have Brown v. Board of Education. Does that change her outlook in terms of what risks she is prepared to take?
THEOHARISI mean, she like many sort of black people, black activists is tremendously heartened when the decision first happens but she grow very discouraged. The resistance in Montgomery is so huge, very few black parents are willing to put their -- to sort of try, to press for school desegregation. And then we want to remember, the Supreme Court comes back in 1955, right, with the famous sort of timetable which is no timetable. They basically say with all deliberate speed, right, which basically puts the onus back on activists on black people and their white allies to press for school desegregation.
THEOHARISIn fact, five months before her bus stand she goes to a two-week sort of adult organizer training workshop at Highlander Folks Schools, convenes to talk about the issue of school desegregation and how people from around -- you know, activists are going to press for school desegregation. Because the activists realized that there's -- the courts are not going to insist on it. And so she goes to this training school. She's very discouraged. She talks about being very sort of discouraged and down when she goes.
THEOHARISHighlander's a tremendous boost to her spirit in part because she describes it as the first time she really feels like she can talk to white people and not feel hostility. It's an interracial workshop. It's about half black and half white. People eat together. People sleep in the same room together. So it's a very matter of fact interracialness which she loves. She loves that it's white people making the breakfast for her.
THEOHARISAnd so then she gets back to Montgomery and I think in the wake of this experience at Montgomery it's harder to bear what's -- you know, kind of the sort of how much resistance there is. Interestingly, I should tell you, on the last day at Highlander, like any sort of organizer training school, they do a go-around. And they're asked -- everybody's supposed to say, well what are you going to do when you get back home, right, because this is about training local leaders.
THEOHARISAnd she says, well there's never going to be a mass movement in Montgomery. It's never going to happen. This is the cradle of the Confederacy, you know, violence is too great and black people are not unified. And so what I'm going to do is I'm going to keep working with the young people. She had, the year before, reformed a kind of youth branch of the Montgomery NAACP. And so she's working with the young people. She's been pressing them to take more stance against segregation.
THEOHARISSo she goes back thinking that that's where change is going to come, is from young people. She's not very hopeful of any sort of mass movement to happen in Montgomery. And yet five months later on a December evening she, nonetheless, refuses to give up her seat on the bus.
REHMAnd what happens as a result of that?
THEOHARISWell, I mean, first, we want to remember, the bus driver is carrying a gun, right. She is sitting in the middle section. She is always quick to say, I was not sitting in the front. The front was reserved for white people.
REHMHow many rows?
THEOHARISThere were 14 seats reserved for white people.
THEOHARISAnd what -- on some routes literally that were mostly through black neighborhoods, those seats would never fill. And black people would have to stand with empty seats in the front.
REHMWith empty seats.
THEOHARISSo she's sitting in the middle section. She actually passes by -- she actually doesn't take the first bus she sees. It's too crowded. She goes to the drugstore to buy a few things. She gets on a bus somewhere around 5:30 or 6:00. At the third stop, the bus fills up. One white man is left standing. And by the terms of segregation, all four people are -- the bus driver asks all four people sitting in this row that she's sitting in to get up so this one white man can sit down. The bus driver asked the first time, nobody moves. The bus driver asks the second time and she says the other three people reluctantly get up.
THEOHARISShe lets the man sitting next to her pass by and she slides next to the window. He says, well, I'm going to have you arrested. She says, you may do that, right, fastidious grammar, even in this incredibly scary moment, right. He has a gun, it's a crowded bus. He then decides he's going to call his supervisor. He gets off the bus to call his supervisor. Meanwhile, she talks about people grumbling on the bus, we can imagine, right.
REHMOf course, all these people.
THEOHARISAll these people, you know, people want to get home, people are scared that something terrible is...
REHMDo they urge her to get up?
THEOHARISShe -- in no interview that I saw is she willing to say that she heard anything that people said, but she definitely feels like people are not happy with her.
THEOHARISFirst the bus driver, James Blake, calls his supervisor. The supervisor says, did you warn her? He says, yes. Then the supervisor says, put her off the bus. Then Blake gets the police and the police come on the bus. And Rosa Parks in one interview that I found says that she believes the police just wanted to evict her from the bus. She thinks she hears the word NAACP. She doesn't, in this interview, believe that they know who she is but they are worried. And she says it's Blake who really makes the decision. He's going to come down after he finishes. He wants her, you know, to sign an arrest warrant. So she is arrested and taken to jail.
THEOHARISMeanwhile, someone on the bus goes to tell Edie Nixon. Edie Nixon, again, is, you know, a longtime activist with Mrs. Parks. And Edit Nixon then gets on the phone to try to figure out what's happened. He enlists the help of a white couple in town, sort of one of the few civil rights supporters in town by the name of Clifford and Virginia Durr. Meanwhile, Parks gets to make a call home. The first thing her mother...
REHMFrom the jail.
THEOHARIS...from the jail, her mother says, were you beaten, right? I mean, they're very worried. She says, no. And so meanwhile, sort of Raymond always comes down to bail her out. So Raymond, Edie Nixon, Clifford and Virginia Durr come down. She probably spends about three hours in jail. And then they go back to the house to talk about what's going to happen next. Because we are in the wake of Brown versus Board of Education, so there are new legal possibilities. And they had been talking about having a test case.
THEOHARISAnd Edie Nixon is in a measure delighted once he realizes she is okay because in one way she's the kind of test case they want. She's 42 years old, she's active in her church and she's been sort of respected and known in the community for her community work, but also for her political work. So he knows and people know she's not going to flinch under the kind of pressure that's going to be brought down on anyone who makes this kind of public stand.
REHMBut yet the public hears this quiet seamstress is arrested.
THEOHARISWell, I think over the first weeks of the boycott what you will see is Martin Luther King, other boycott leaders, even Parks herself start to background her political activities, in part because immediately, right, segregation is in Montgomery. White people in Montgomery start saying she's an NAACP plant. She's a communist plant. She doesn't even live in Montgomery. All sorts of rumors come up, right. And so they -- and this is the Cold War, right, so she's constantly being called the communist.
THEOHARISAnd so what we see is the black press, black leaders, Parks herself begin to background that political history even though it's part of the reason I argue in the book that the community galvanizes behind her. Because they trust her and they know again that she knows what's coming and she's going to be able to sort of stand up against it.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." That Highlander experience in Tennessee truly gave her something that was so powerful, so strong. Could it have changed her?
THEOHARISI don't think it changes her, but I think one of the people running the workshop says -- a woman by the name of Septima Clark. She's a black woman, she had been a teacher in South Carolina for decades. She loses her job because she refuses to give up her membership in the NAACP. The NAACP gets red bated across the south in the wake of Brown versus Board of Education. So Septima Clark goes to work for Highlander in these workshops. And Rosa Parks is tremendously inspired by both Clark and by Miles Horton who's one of the founders of Highlander.
THEOHARISAnd with Clark she really envies how calm, how determined Septima Clark is. And Rosa Parks feels so nervous, feels so worried. And then she loves Myles Horton's sense of humor and she talks about how much that lifts her spirit. And so I think part of what Highlander does for her is it rejuvenates her and it kind of gives her that kind of political -- more political community to kind of go back a little bit refreshed.
REHMAnd what that refusal to leave her seat on the bus leads to is the Montgomery bus boycott. If you're going to do something realistically you've got to do it economically.
THEOHARISYes. So what happens, they go back to the Parks' apartment, they talk. At first Raymond is worried, you know, that they're going to be killed and also that the community is not going to stick behind her. So they have -- but then she decides to go forward and be this test case. She calls a young black lawyer in town by the name of Fred Gray. She's kind of mentoring him to ask him to represent her. Fred Gray then calls Jo Ann Robinson. Jo Ann Robinson is the head of the Women's Political Council. It's a group of black women working on issues of segregation and particularly around the bus by this point.
THEOHARISA year before, the Women's Political Council, right after Brown versus Board, sends the bus company a letter saying, you need to change or we're going to boycott. So it is actually the Women's Political Council that makes the decision that Thursday night to call for a one-day boycott.
THEOHARISOn the day -- on Monday when she is going to be arraigned in court. And so in the middle of the night Jo Ann Robinson sneaks into Alabama State College, where she is a professor, with two students and the help of a colleague and mimeographs 35,000 leaflets that they're going to distribute all over Montgomery. And about 3:00 am she says she called Edit Nixon to tell them -- tell him of their plans. She doesn't call Rosa Parks, interestingly. Edie Nixon early in the morning gets on the phone with some of the black ministers in town because he realizes that in order to pull this off they need the ministers to preach about it.
THEOHARISSo he calls first Reverend Abernathy and then he calls a young 26-year-old minister in town by the name of Martin Luther King. Now Martin Luther King had just had -- they had just had their first kid. The baby is one month old, he's fairly new in town. Nixon likes this because King doesn't have any enemies and King's church is centrally located, right across from the capitol. So Nixon sees this as a good place to have the meeting.
THEOHARISKing -- it's 6:00 in the morning. King says, okay, can you call me back, right? This is -- he's a young father, he's new in town. Nixon then keeps calling ministers and calls him back. By this point King says, yes I'm willing to do it. Nixon says, well okay because I've been telling everybody we're doing it at your church. But I tell this story in part because I think we want to remember that King doesn't know he's Martin Luther King in neon, right. He is a young man like many of us are, struggling with kind of making himself ready to step into this moment.
REHMJeanne Theoharis. The book is titled "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks."
REHMAnd here's our first email for Jeanne Theoharis, author of the brand new book "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks." It's from Andre in Florida, who says, "Last week Religion and Newsweek ran a story about Mrs. Parks. And it was revealed that her heirlooms have not yet been sold. Isn't there someone who could invest and buy the lot? Has anyone reached out to a Bill Cosby or an Oprah Winfrey?"
THEOHARISAfter Mrs. Parks dies, there's a dispute over her estate. And the Detroit probate judge decides that they are going to give the control of all of her sort of effects, so that's part of her papers and her gowns, her sewing basket, all of her material effects to a New York auction house to sell, but it has now sat there for five years. It is priced -- that's an extraordinary price tag on it, $8 to $10 million, which obviously puts a lot of institutions out, a lot of institutions that Mrs. Parks cared about.
THEOHARISFor instance, she gives the first part of her papers in the late '70s to Wayne State (word?) Library. In an article in the student newspaper when she gives it, she talks about it being the first installment. She wants it to be useful. Institutions like Wayne, institutions like the Schomburg Center of The New York Public Library, Alabama State College, which was obviously very active in the boycott, institutions like that can't compete in an auction like this.
THEOHARISThe other thing is that no scholar has been asked to kind of come in and look at the papers, assess the papers. And I don't think we would -- if this was Kings papers, if this was letters, Kennedy letters, Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, you would never think you could sell papers of one of these political figures of the 20th century without having scholars assess them. And so, again, I think this sort of speaks to unfortunately the way that Rosa Parks is not treated like a sort of substantive political figure in the way that her papers also have been sort of kept out of, you know, any -- there's been just no scholars getting to see them.
REHMI'm fascinated that there was this dispute to begin with. The family was involved in that dispute. The judge then orders them to be auctioned off. How come?
THEOHARISMrs. Parks started an institute, right, in the late '80s in part to keep the movement going. We see her commitment to young people sort of continue, even sort of in her last decade she starts this institute. So part of the estate is between -- part of the dispute in her estate is between the institute...
THEOHARIS...that she gives sort of a lot of her estate to and her family. And then we get the probate judge stepping in and making this decision. But then I think part of the problem is the ways that her material effects are being treated like some sort of celebrity auction, I think, which is sort of regrettable, and not, again, like how we might treat the papers of Eleanor Roosevelt or Martin Luther King.
REHMAll right. To Kalamazoo, Mich. Good morning, Jean.
JEANGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
JEANI've always wondered if Rosa Parks moved to Detroit from Alabama because her life was in danger.
THEOHARISAbsolutely. So throughout the boycott, the Parks' family gets constant sort of hate calls, death threats, so much so...
REHMHow long did the boycott last?
THEOHARISOver a year, 382 days. They get so many sort of death threats that her mom often would sort of talk on the phone for hours with friends just because they're getting so many calls and it's obviously very upsetting and very scary. Those calls, those threats continue even after the boycott ends. So, yes, this is part of why they moved. The second part of why they move is one month into the boycott Rosa Parks is let go from her job at Montgomery Fair department store. Also right about this time Raymond Parks, he's a barber, he's barbering at Maxwell Air Force Base. And they tell him there can be no discussion in the shop of the boycott or that woman. And, again, Raymond is a proud, political man. That's untenable.
THEOHARISSo very early on in the boycott, both of the Parks have now lost their jobs. And so they spend most of the boycott without steady work. She's sewing on the side. He's barbering on the side. There are some donations that they get, both Virginia Durr solicits donations for them, they get some, a little bit of help from the Montgomery Improvement Association. But they are in economic trouble.
THEOHARISAnd she actually spends much of the boycott fundraising, going around the country fundraising for the NAACP and the MIA, which is the Montgomery Improvement Association, while her own family is in sort of economic sort of insecurity. And that continues. They still can't find work when the boycott ends. And so eight months after the boycott ends, in August of 1957, they move to Detroit.
REHMHer husband by this time has become demoralized. He begins to drink heavily.
THEOHARISUm-hum. I mean, she talks about in many ways the year of the boycott being harder on her mother and her husband than on her. She, again, travels a lot of that year, and so they are home, you know, taking all these horrible calls. Again, I mean, basically both Parks has become unhirable, right. He'd had all of these white clients that he barbered for, most of them dry up, right, so this is a very hard time for them.
THEOHARISYou know, it's very scary. There are sort of threats being made. And so he begins drinking heavily. He has what she describes as some sort of like nervous breakdown while they are -- during the boycott. So I think it kind of speaks to the kind of magnitude of kind of white terror that has visited upon the Parks' and many other people in Montgomery who are supporting the boycott.
REHMOnce they move to Detroit, does Raymond find new work?
THEOHARISHe ultimately does. They both still struggle for a while. She describes Detroit as the northern promise land that wasn't. They find a situation not so different, in her words, not so much difference between Montgomery and Detroit. So they still struggle to find work. He ultimately finds -- he starts barbering at a shop. They are living in the Virginia Park neighborhood of Detroit. It is a completely segregated neighborhood. And she was working for Stockton Sewing Company by the early '60s, but she really struggles finding work.
THEOHARISAnd then in 1964 she starts volunteering. She's still very politically active, right, because she gets to Detroit, she finds much of the same problems that she found in Montgomery and she then decides she's going to continue on with her political work. So she is volunteering for an upstart political campaign. Michigan is going to get a new congressional district. And it looks possible to send a second black person to congress from the state of Michigan. And so she is supporting a young civil rights lawyer by the name of John Conyers, who's making his first bid for congress on a platform of jobs, justice and peace.
THEOHARISConyers liked Parks as an early, early opponent to the war in Vietnam. And so she's supporting him. She actually gets Martin Luther King to come to Detroit to support John Conyers.
REHMI was going to ask you about their relationship, that is Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King, after the boycott.
THEOHARISShe continues to stay in touch with people in Montgomery. She continues to -- the Montgomery Improvement Association continues on, but then King and a number of the ministers in Montgomery and then also across the south form the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And she also sort of periodically will come down to sort of be part of their events. So she has stayed in some kind of contact with King even after they move -- even after they move out of Montgomery.
REHMAll right. To Baltimore, Md. Good morning, Alex.
ALEXHi, how are you this morning?
ALEXI was wondering what happened to James Blake, the bus driver, and if he ever did any interviews after the fact.
THEOHARISHe very much resists interviews. He does an interview I think on the 25th anniversary. He's still very angry about it. You know, he talks about being haunted by that woman. He says he was only doing his job. Though, I would argue with that. He I do feel makes a decision in that moment to have her arrested. He'd evicted her from the bus. In 1943 she abhorred the practice that some bus drivers insisted upon where black people had to pay their money in the front, get off the bus and reboard. Rosa Parks and a number of people, activists in Montgomery refused to do that. Blake had thrown her off the bus because of that. She'd had other problems with other bus drivers.
THEOHARISSo Blake in most of the public interviews seems sort of unrepentant. But I heard from people who are active and who heard a program about sort of the bus driver union. Obviously in the 1950s we don't have any black bus drivers in Montgomery, but that does change. One of the demands of the boycott had been the hiring of black bus drivers, so we began to see black bus drivers in the bus drivers' union. And apparently at a program around the bus drivers' union, some black bus drivers do talk about working with James Blake and that he does come around some and that they did find him to sort of -- I'm not sure they used the word repentant, but to be an ally and to sort of want put that in the past, so...
REHMInteresting. All right. Here's an email from Robert in Ohio, who asks, "How likely is it that the popular portrayal of Rosa Parks as quiet and apolitical is an attempt to keep her from being portrayed as an angry, black woman? Just think back to how Republicans tried to stick that label onto Michelle Obama in 2008. Unfortunately, Parks' real impact is diminished by that characterization. I'm glad we're learning about the real Mrs. Parks."
THEOHARISAbsolutely. I mean, I think part of it was, as we were talking about earlier, even during the boycott itself, a strategic image of Rosa Parks is put forward. A true image, she is certainly a Christian, very active in her church. Certainly she comes to that moment with a deep Christian faith. She is an assistant tailor. She is a seamstress. She is 42 years old, right. I mean, so those characteristics about her are sort of put forward. But I do think part of, again, how we get this kind of contemporary memorialization of her is the kind of taking that out of context, but also I think we want our heroes in this kind of soft, fuzzy way.
THEOHARISI mean, I think we see a similar thing with King happen, right. And she will talk about. She works very hard, like many civil rights activists do, to get a holiday for Martin Luther King. And then is I think very much disappointed by the way that he becomes this dreamy, fuzzy King, right, and not the kind of courageous, moral, Christian, you know, kind of righteously angry figure, right, that she had known, right, in the kind of anti-Vietnam, the anti-poverty stuff he's done. And so I think similar to what we see with King, we see her kind of being stripped and turned into this fuzzy sort of, again, quiet, not angry, quiet, not angry sort of figure that I think really strips her of kind of the fullness of who she was.
REHMJeanne Theoharis, her new book is titled "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks." We have a number of callers waiting. We'll try to get to as many as we can. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Pittsburgh, Pa. Good morning, Roberta.
ROBERTAGood morning. My name is Roberta Goodwilburn and I'm calling from Pittsburgh. And I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Rosa Parks and escorting her around our town and our school system. We had Rosa Parks Weekend in Teaneck, N.J. 30 years ago. I was a school teacher there. And she spoke at my elementary school first. And the hair still rises on my arms when I think about it. She was just a beautiful person and everyone needs to know her entire story. And I thank Mrs. Theoharis for writing some more about her.
THEOHARISThank you. I do think one of the things that Rosa Parks was most committed to was sort of black history, keeping black history alive. And doing these kind of school programs was a way to involved young people in the struggle. And she really always saw young people as king of the vanguard of sort of keeping the movement going.
REHMHere's an interesting point from Linda on Facebook, who says, "Mrs. Parks was the perfect light skinned, middle class woman to challenge the bus segregation of Montgomery since the other women who were harassed on the buses did not meet E.D. Nixon's idea of a perfect role model of a black woman."
THEOHARISI would be a little careful with that. Rosa Parks was not middle class. She was working class. She, again, was working at the department start, Raymond's a barber, they're living in the projects. Middle class black people did not -- did identify with her in that she had a kind of middle class demeanor, but they didn't regard her...
REHMBecause of her education and background.
THEOHARISRight. But she had finished high school, though...
THEOHARIS...she had not finished college, right, and that will separate her from sort of many middle class people in Montgomery. So she has -- I would argue, in fact, that she has this really interesting class position that actually makes her -- makes a whole range of people identify with her, that she is not middle class, but that she is sort of working class and middle class in demeanor, so so many people see themselves in her.
REHMWhy did you, a young, white woman, become so passionate about this subject?
THEOHARISSo I've been a long time scholar of African American history, of the black freedom struggle in the north. And so much of my work before this has really focused on civil rights struggles in Boston, in L.A., in New York. So when Rosa Parks dies, I think I like many people were sort of fascinated and awed and then sort of maybe even horrified by kind of how, one, she was being honored, and in another way she was being kind of stripped of the fullness of her.
THEOHARISAnd so I give a lecture, a talk on her. And a colleague asked me to turn it into a chapter. And so I've been trying to fill -- so I sit down to sort of fill out the talk I'd given, and I start to realize how many themes are there that I had worked on. So this whole half of her political life in Detroit, half of my book is about that, about her after Montgomery, and what a rich story it was. And then I also realize, and, again, I'm very sort of chagrined and humbled by this, that there wasn't -- I think most of us assume there has been sort of a scholarly monograph on her.
THEOHARISAnd so to sort of discover that here she may be one of the most sort of famous Americans of the, you know, 20th century, second half of the 20th century, and yet there's no -- you know, there's no footnoted scholarly treatment of her, and so that's part of what also motivated me to do it.
REHMJeanne Theoharis, she's professor of political science, City University of New York's Brooklyn College. Her new book is titled "The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks." Congratulations to you.
THEOHARISThank you so much.
REHMAnd thank you. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman and Lisa Dunn. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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