The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis


Jeanne Theoharis is a professor at Brooklyn College and has written eleven books on the topics of civil rights and Black Power movements. This one was written in 2013 and is the first definitive political biography of Rosa Parks. The audiobook I listened to was recorded in 2024 and has a substantial introduction, occasioned by newly available papers, photographs, and other materials of Rosa Parks. The materials were held in an auction house for years because of a dispute over her estate. It was purchased by Howard Buffett, a son of Warren Buffett, given to the Library of Congress, and became available in 2015. The introduction reviews these materials which were not available to the author when she wrote the book.

In December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, when the bus became full. Though there had been many similar instances in the past, hers was unusual in that she was arrested. The NCAA decided to call for a boycott, and the expected one-day boycott, lasted 381 days. Martin Luther King had moved to Montgomery not long before this event and soon took a leadership role in the civil rights events from that time forward. It was the Supreme Court decision in 1956 ruling that bus segregation violates the due process and equal protection  clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment that ended the boycott.

The author is eager to change the myth that Rosa Parks was just a tired woman who didn’t want to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. She details Mrs. Parks’ decade of working to organize for the NAACP in Montgomery. She tells about her consequential two-week experience in Highlander Folk School, a school for social justice leadership training. She tells about Mrs. Parks’ mother’s activist work. She explains that the activists in Montgomery were careful and deliberate about the boycott; it was decided that the event involving Mrs. Parks’ quiet approach was one that would galvanize support of the Black community. It was Martin Luther King who spoke about Black people being tired of being mistreated and from that approach grew up the notion that Mrs. Parks was just a tired seamstress.

Shortly after her arrest, both Mrs. Parks and her husband lost their jobs. Her health deteriorated and for many years she could not work. It was surprising how little monetary support she and her family received during those years. Eventually they moved to Detroit and it was John Conyers who hired her as a new congressman.

In the late 1960s and 1970s Rosa Parks is pictured as a contrast to the angry and violent Black militants of the time. In fact she stood with Black radical trade unionists, cultural nationalists, anti-war activists, and prisoners’ rights advocates. Though she dressed conservatively, spoke quietly, and attended church, she was thrilled by the “Black is Beautiful” assertion. She seemed to be more in tune with Malcolm X than with Martin Luther King.

I was struck by the description of her time at the Highlander Folk School in 1955. Before that experience she had not spent time in meetings and conversations or eaten at a table with white people.

One other aspect of this book I want to remember is that the author refers to her as “Mrs. Parks.” That seems unusual for an academic book and seems to be a mark of respect for a woman who lived in a certain time.

Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Beacon Press, 2013, 304 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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