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Rosa Parks Was a Lifelong Freedom Fighter, Not a Tired Lady on a Bus

By BETH HARPAZ

A new book about Rosa Parks places her famous act of resistance on a bus in the context of her lifelong fight for racial justice.

“Largely held up as a meek, accidental heroine, she was stripped of her long history of activism, the community of activists she worked with, and her anger at American injustice,” writes Professor Jeanne Theoharis (Brooklyn College), author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. “Her larger political beliefs were whitewashed in favor of an endless replay of that photo of her looking out the bus window. I wrote this book to try to set the record straight.”

The newly published book, written with Brandy Colbert, is a young readers edition of Theoharis’ 2013 biography of Parks. This version reflects new research from a collection of Parks’ papers recently acquired by the Library of Congress. It also incorporates what Theoharis learned “from talking to young people around the country about what resonates” from Parks’ story. 

Parks’ early decades shed light on the roots of her tenacity. Her grandparents had been enslaved, and she grew up watching her grandfather sit on their porch all night, shotgun in hand, while the family slept in their clothes, ready to run in case of an attack by whites. 

Parks tried to register to vote three times before succeeding at age 33, then struggled to come up with $18 in required poll taxes. She also traveled around the country taking testimony from African Americans who’d experienced brutality and sexual violence from whites. As a young woman, she herself barely escaped an attempted sexual assault by a white man. Activism in the 1940s was difficult, demoralizing, and terrifying, Theoharis writes, with “no indication that you would see change in your lifetime.” 

Parks was not the first to defy bus segregation rules, and she “understood the horrible consequences” that could result. A Black veteran named Hilliard Brooks who’d challenged Montgomery’s bus policies was shot and killed by police. A teenage girl was raped after her mother, Viola White, went to court over an arrest on a bus. Claudette Colvin was abandoned by activists after she was arrested on a bus because as a dark-skinned 15-year-old, she was deemed an unsuitable test case. (It’s been said that Colvin was pregnant at the time, but Theoharis says she did not get pregnant until later.)

Parks and her family suffered terribly as a result of her activism, experiencing unemployment, poverty, death threats, unending harassment, and illness. “Rosa Parks never sugarcoated the fact that living through that time was like being in a war zone,” says Theoharis. 

The book follows Parks to Detroit, where she lived more than half her life and where she continued fighting “racism of the North” as an activist and as an aide to Congressman John Conyers. 

“If we’re going to honor Rosa Parks, then we have to look at her whole life of activism and grapple with who she really was and what her legacy asks of us,” Theoharis writes. Recognizing that change comes not from a single act or a single individual offers lessons on how to “work for social justice today.”

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Explore This Work

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
Beacon Press, 2021

Work By

Jeanne Theoharis (Distinguished Professor, Political Science) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools

Brooklyn College