Today’s theme for University Press Week is Presses in Conversation with Authors. In our entry in the blog tour, our executive editor Gayatri Patnaik interviews Jeanne Theoharis, author of the 2014 NAACP Image Award-winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of numerous books and articles on the civil rights and Black Power movements, and the politics of race in contemporary America. She is also series editor for a new Beacon Press series, Stride Toward Justice: Confronting Race, Gender & Class in the United States. The series offers progressive voices writing on and at the intersection of race, gender and class and is an urgent response to the injustices of our times and the ideas that hide and sustain them. Theoharis’s coeditor for the series is Melissa Harris-Perry, Presidential Endowed Chair in Politics and International Affairs, the director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University, and host of Melissa Harris-Perry, which airs weekend mornings on MSNBC.
Gayatri Patnaik: You spent nearly a decade researching and writing about Rosa Parks without access to her papers since they literally weren’t available. When did they become available and how—and what was it like for you that first day at the Library of Congress when you were finally able to delve into them?
Jeanne Theoharis: It was both incredible and a bit bittersweet. The collection includes about 7,500 manuscript items and 2,500 photographs and I had spent years fighting for them to be opened. So to see the wealth of material there was thrilling. I spent a week with the collection in early January 2015 (and have been back subsequently). It was thrilling to get to look through it all—to read letters from her to her mother and her husband, look at her datebooks, sift through all her political materials, read her speech notes. But it was also overwhelming in terms of the texture that this could have added to the book. I was delighted when Beacon decided to publish a revised edition of the book with a new introduction to take this new material into account.
One of the archivists who worked on the collection said she was struck as she went through it by how much the central arguments of my book were further confirmed by these newly-opened papers. So that was very heartening, in particular the depth of Rosa Parks’ political vision and feistiness of her political voice, the expanse of her political activism before and after the boycott, the degree she and her family suffered in the decade after her bus stand, and her work not just galvanizing the boycott but sustaining it over the 382 days.
GP: What surprised or struck you the most as you looked at her papers and possessions?
JT: Two things struck me. First, the collection contains a small set of personal writings and speech notes that seem to date from during and right after the boycott. These give a very up-close sense of what Rosa Parks was thinking at the time of the boycott—her ideas on the nature of white supremacy (what she called “walking the tightrope of Jim Crow”) in Alabama, the context of her own rebellion, why they were boycotting and how difficult it was to be a rebel. She wrote about how lonely and crazy she felt, of how much pressure was brought to bear on “troublemakers” and how “startling” the community's reaction was following her arrest.
The second thing that struck me was the depth of her sacrifice, how deep her poverty was for a decade in the wake of her arrest and the health issues that resulted from it. The papers contain numerous financial and medical records, including her income tax statements. It takes eleven years—till 1966—for the Parks family to post an annual income equal to what they declared in 1955, when she made her bus stand. In other words, the collection really allows us to see her suffering up close. And it's heart-rending.
GP: What do you think most people don’t realize about Rosa Parks?
JT: Many things, but one of the most widespread is the ways we miss the second half of her life in the North and her ongoing political activism there. The Parks family moved to Detroit in 1957 and Rosa Parks actually spent more of her life in Michigan than Alabama. Popular ideas still treat systemic racial injustice to be a product of the South, yet Rosa Parks found it on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Popular images of the movement are nearly all Southern; Rosa Parks spent more than half her life challenging the racism of the Jim Crow North, in part in and alongside a growing Black Power movement in the city. Her life challenges the lines we draw between North and South, and the civil rights and Black Power movements.
GP: What has been most rewarding about the publication of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks?
JT: The ways so many different kinds of people are reading it and finding it useful, particularly people building new movements for justice today. I’ve heard that fast-food workers organizing in Kansas City are reading it. People building the struggle in Ferguson and the Moral Mondays movement are reading it. Young lawyers working on criminal justice or post-9/11 civil liberties and new student activists are using it. I have long felt that her life offers much in the way of sustenance and vision for how we struggle today, and it has been immensely exciting to see others finding that as well.
GP: And what has been the most unexpected outcome of this book for you?
JT: In 2014, the book received an NAACP Image Award. This was beyond my wildest imaginings and an incredible honor.
GP: What message might Rosa Parks have for us at the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycotts?
JT: “Don’t give up and don’t say the movement is dead!” That’s what she told Spelman students in 1985 and what she would be saying today. One of the clearest through-lines in Rosa Parks’ political life from the 1930s to her death in 2005 was attacking injustice in the criminal justice system—from opposing the death penalty to seeking justice for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence, to supporting political prisoners and the wrongfully accused. In 1967, she served as a juror in a People’s Tribunal in Detroit, around the police killings of three unarmed young black men.
So while some commentators have tried to draw a distinction between the good old civil rights and these new movements today, Rosa Parks’ life shows us quite the opposite. Like Ella Baker, Rosa Parks appreciated the energy and militancy of young people. And given her actions across her life, she would be standing on the side of these new movements for justice like #BlackLivesMatter and Moral Mondays.
To read more press conversations with authors in today's blog tour, check out Temple University Press, Columbia University Press, University of Virginia Press, University of Illinois Press, Southern Illinois University Press, University Press of Kansas, Oregon State University Press, Liverpool University Press, University of Toronto Press Journals, and Manchester University Press.