Human Rights for Sex Workers: An Interview with Melinda Chateauvert
Happy Holidays from Beacon Press!

Revealing the True Legacy of Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela

by Jeanne Theoharis.

On November 30, Melissa Harris-Perry honored my biography of Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, by including it amongst a group of ground-breaking Black feminist texts and histories on her “Black Feminism Syllabus.” This recognition came on the 58th anniversary of Rosa Parks' bus arrest and the public marking of the day, including the RNC's unfortunate tweet celebrating “Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” The RNC’s tweet spoke to what has been a theme at the heart of much Parks memorialization across the political spectrum—the honoring of her is regularly accompanied by a element of national self congratulation. Her stand is often now commemorated as a way to mark how far we’ve come in the successful movement to end Jim Crow segregation and racism.

What my book sought to do was rescue Rosa Parks from the narrow pedestal she exists upon. This national sainthood has paradoxically diminished the scope and importance of her political work and functions, across the political spectrum, to make us feel good about ourselves as a nation. It misses the lifelong activist who worked against injustice in both the North and South and paid a heavy price for her political work but kept struggling to address contemporary racial and social inequalities until her death in 2005. It misses her global vision and how she was treated as un-American for great stretches of her life by many Americans for these political activities. And finally, it misses that a real honoring of her legacy requires us to do the same hard, tedious, scary work of pressing against the injustices of our time, both nationally and internationally, because she firmly believed the movement was not over.  

Rosa Parks greets Nelson and Winnie Mandela after his release from prison in 1990
Rosa Parks greets Nelson and Winnie Mandela after his release from prison in 1990
Harris-Perry's syllabus appeared just a few days before the passing and accompanying stampede of memorialization for Nelson Mandela. The similarities between the outpouring of love and spectacle for both life-long activists bear some reflection. Floating above us like parade balloons, both Parks and Mandela are embraced and yet simultaneously stripped of the substance of their political beliefs, the movements they were apart of, and the radical nature of their political work. Venerated as warm-and-cuddly grandparents, Parks and Mandela in death become figures who don't ask anything of us. These elaborate spectacles of honor and tribute function to distract us from the responsibility of harnessing such courage in ourselves.

An internationalist who critiqued US foreign policy from Vietnam to Central America, Parks had long been active in the divestment movement, joining protesters in front of the South African embassy. She and Mandela actually got to meet shortly after he was released from prison. Mandela made a trip to the United States to draw support for the anti-apartheid movement. Coming off the plane in Detroit in the midst of all the dignitaries and political figures, Mandela saw her and froze. He walked directly toward her and began chanting "Rosa Parks! Rosa Parks!" These two seasoned freedom fighters embraced.    

To honor their legacy requires asking much harder questions about where we are today. It requires scrutinizing who we call and treat as terrorists and un-American now. Parks and Mandela worked for radical transformative change.The problems they identified were not just anachronistic racial systems but enduring ones of local and global injustice. Both reminded over and over how change happens because of movements, not simply individuals and that the work of these movements was not finished. To pay tribute thus requires us to take up the work ourselves and in community.


JeanneJeane Theoharis is professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She received an AB in Afro-American studies from Harvard College and a PhD in American culture from the University of Michigan. She is the author or coauthor of four books, including The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, and many articles on the black freedom struggle and the contemporary politics of race in the United States.