What you learned about Rosa Parks in school was a myth. Much of what is known and taught about her is incomplete, distorted, and just plain wrong. Because Rosa Parks was active for sixty years, in the North as well as the South, her story provides a broader and more accurate view of the Black freedom struggle across the twentieth century. Jeanne Theoharis and Brandy Colbert show young people how the national fable of Parks and the civil rights movement—celebrated in schools during Black History Month—has warped what we know about Parks and stripped away the power and substance of the movement. Their young-adult adaptation Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks illustrates how the movement radically sought to expose and eradicate racism in jobs, housing, schools, and public services, as well as police brutality and the over-incarceration of Black people—and how Rosa Parks was a key player throughout.
If you haven’t already read either version—and you should!—here are twelve things you didn’t know about Rosa Parks.
One: Raised by her mother and grandparents to be proud, Parks’s determination began as a young person. When a white boy pushed her, she pushed back. His mother threatened to kill her, but Parks stood her ground, saying she did not want to be pushed. Another time, she confronted a white bully bothering her and her brother, holding up a brick and daring him to hit her. He went away.
Two: Her husband Raymond was “the first real activist I ever met.” When she married him, Raymond was working to free the nine Scottsboro boys, and she joined these efforts. Raymond’s political outlook was crucial to her political development and their partnership sustained her political work over many decades.
Three: She was a lifelong believer in self-defense and kept a gun in the house, including during the boycott, because of the daily terror of white violence.
Four: She had been thrown off the bus a decade earlier by this same bus driver for refusing to pay in the front and go around to board in the back—and had various run-ins with other bus drivers because she refused to re-board after paying. Parks knew well the cost of bus resistance. A neighbor at Cleveland Courts had been killed. Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in March 1955 for her refusal to move had been manhandled, and Parks had spearheaded efforts to raise money for the case.
Five: She had been working with the NAACP for more than a decade, doing the dangerous work of trying to document white brutality and legal malfeasance against Black people. She had grown so discouraged with the lack of change that she told fellow activists at a Highlander Folk School workshop she attended the summer before her bus stand that there would never be change in Montgomery because people wouldn’t stick together, and white resistance was too fierce.
Six: Parks had no belief that her arrest would galvanize a mass movement. She had been “pushed as far as she could be pushed.” She did not know if she would get off the bus alive” but still found her arrest “annoying” as it seemed, at the time, a distraction from the NAACP youth workshop she was planning for the weekend.
Seven: Parks’s arrest had grave consequences for her family. She and her husband both lost their jobs. Even as she made appearances across the country, Parks and her family were at times nearly destitute. Her mother would stay on the phone for hours just to keep the line busy so death threats could not be called in. The Parks’s economic and health troubles lasted for a decade after her arrest.
Eight: Parks spent more than half of her life in the North, in Detroit—and lived for most of her time in Detroit in “the heart of the ghetto” (just a mile from the epicenter of the 1967 Detroit riot). She continued to organize and protest racial inequality in the North, “The promised land that wasn’t” she called it.
Nine: In 1964, she volunteered for the long-shot campaign of John Conyers for a new congressional seat and helped secure his victory in the crowded primary by convincing Martin Luther King to come to Detroit on Conyers behalf. One of the first things Conyers did when he was elected was hire Rosa Parks to work in his Detroit office, where she worked until 1988. This was the first time in over twenty years of political work that she held a paid political position. Conyers’ office received all sorts of hate calls and letters for hiring Parks.
Ten: Her personal hero was Malcolm X.
Eleven: Parks worked alongside the Black Power movement, particularly around issues such as reparations, Black history, anti-police brutality, freedom for Black political prisoners, independent Black political power, economic justice, and an end to the war in Vietnam. She attended the Black Political Convention in Gary, IN, and the Black Power conference in Philadelphia, PA. She journeyed to Lowndes County, AL, to support the movement there, spoke at the Poor People’s Campaign, helped organize support committees on behalf of Black political prisoners, such as the Wilmington 10 and Imari Obadele of the RNA, and paid a visit of support to the Black Panther school in Oakland, CA.
Twelve: She was an internationalist. An early opponent of the war in Vietnam in the early 1960s, she was a member of WILPF and supporter of Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit and the Jeannette Rankin Brigade protest in DC. In the 1980s, she protested apartheid and US complicity, joining a picket outside the South African embassy and opposed US policy in Central America. Eight days after 9/11, she joined other activists in a letter, calling for justice and saying this means working with the international community and no retaliation or war.
About the Authors
Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of City University of New York and the author or coauthor of numerous books and articles on the civil rights and Black Power movements and the contemporary politics of race in the US. Her books include The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (winner of a 2014 NAACP Image Award) and A More Beautiful and Terrible History (winner of the 2018 Brooklyn Public Library Literary Prize for Nonfiction). Connect with her on Twitter (@JeanneTheoharis).
Brandy Colbert is the award-winning author of several books for children and teens, including The Only Black Girls in Town, The Voting Booth, and the Stonewall Book Award winner Little & Lion. She is the cowriter of Misty Copeland’s Life in Motion young readers’ edition. Her books have been chosen as Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best-of lists, including the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. She is on faculty at Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children and lives in Los Angeles.