You don’t know Rosa Parks. Not really. Not the way you know about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Unless you have read Jeanne Theoharis’s NAACP Image Award-winning The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, you are familiar with Parks’s Cliff Notes claim to civil rights fame taught in school and not much else. Until Theoharis’s biography was published in 2013, there was no serious footnote or book about her. Let that sink in. Six decades of activism, and not a single book! And more recently, there hadn’t been a feature documentary made about her either. Until now.
Filmmakers Johanna Hamilton and Yoruba Richen joined forces to adapt Theoharis’s biography to a film with the same title. Theoharis joined the crew as a consulting producer. Produced by Soledad O’Brien’s SO’B Productions, it was released on Peacock on October 19. So much happened before Parks’s bus stand and so much happened afterward. From the pages to the screen, this is the civil rights icon you will meet in these highlights from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
From the beginning, she knew oppression had to be done with.
“Many young people were warned by their parents and teachers not to get involved in civil rights. There was this very popular phrase saying in order to stay out of trouble you have to stay in your place,” Parks recalled. But then, she added, “when you stayed in your place, you were still insulted and mistreated if they saw fit to do so.”
Feeling like “puppets on the string in the white man’s hand,” Parks lamented how “we perform to their satisfaction or suffer the consequence if we get out of line.” Repeatedly, then, she underscored the pressure on black people not to dissent and the difficulties in mobilizing in the years before her bus stand, writing, “People blamed [the] NAACP for not winning cases when they did not support it and give strength enough.” She found it demoralizing, if understandable, that in the decade before the boycott “the masses seemed not to put forth too much effort to struggle against the status quo,” and she noted how those who challenged the racial order like she did were labeled “radicals, sore heads, agitators, troublemakers.”
Nevertheless, she persisted.
The first officer addressed Parks and asked her why she did not stand up when instructed to. Parks coolly asked back, “Why do you all push us around?” He replied, “I don’t know but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.” Parks thought to herself, “Let us look at Jim Crow for the criminal he is and what he had done to one life multiplied millions of times over these United States.”
Never mistake quietness for acquiescence.
Her quietness has been misread. She may have seemed “schoolmarmish but there was a storm behind it,” observed activist-journalist Herb Boyd. That evening, as she waited on that bus, there was thunder in her silence. Years later, Parks clarified what motivated her stand, reframing the discussion away from its narrow idea of a seat next to a white person to the actual goal of equal treatment and full human dignity. “I have never been what you would call just an integrationist. I know I’ve been called that. . . . Integrating that bus wouldn’t mean more equality. Even when there was segregation, there was plenty of integration in the South, but it was for the benefit and convenience of the white person, not us. So it is not just integration.” Her aim was to “discontinue all forms of oppression against all those who are weak and oppressed.”
Her resolve to change it began early. Parks’s grandmother worried about young Rosa’s feistiness, scolding her that she wouldn’t “live to be grown if you don’t learn not to talk biggety to white folks.” Parks told her grandmother, “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated, than not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’” For Rosa Parks, getting to dissent, to say “I don’t like it,” was fundamental. Parks’s “determination never to accept it, even if it must be endured,” led her to “search for a way of working for freedom and first class citizenship.” She described the “frustration” of her teenage years and young adulthood—“anger, bitterness, hopeless.” With her husband, Raymond, she helped organize around the Scottsboro case and, in 1943, joined the Montgomery NAACP, becoming secretary and being active for the next dozen years, “getting registered to vote, examin[ing] cases of police brutality, rape, murder, countless others.”
She, too, knew rape culture.
As she kept moving around the living room, trying to stay an arm’s length from him, Parks coolly began haranguing Mr. Charlie [a white neighbor] about the “white man’s inhuman treatment of the Negro. How I hated all white people, especially him. I said I would never stoop so low as to have anything to do with him. . . . I asked him if the white women were not good enough for him, and it was too bad if something was wrong with them.” On and on she went, determined to resist Mr. Charlie’s advances. “I taunted him about the supposed white supremacy. The white man’s law drawing the color line of segregation. I would stay within the law—on my side of the line.” Standing up for herself as a respectable young woman, she informed him she wouldn’t engage sexually with anyone she couldn’t marry, noting that interracial marriage was illegal in Alabama. When Mr. Charlie replied that color didn’t matter to him and that he had gotten permission from Sam to be with her, she informed him that Sam didn’t own her. She hated Sam as much as she hated Mr. Charlie. Mr. Charlie repeatedly offered her money and then volunteered to set her up with Sam. Rosa stated there was nothing he could do to get her consent—that “if he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body, he was welcome but he would have to kill me first.” The story finishes with Rosa sitting down and reading the paper, trying to ignore Mr. Charlie while he sits across from her. “I said he couldn’t pay me or fool me, or frighten me. At long last Mr. Charlie got the idea that I meant no, very definitely no.” With no clear-cut conclusion to the story, it is not evident what transpired.
She passed down the civil rights torch to the next generation.
Claudette Colvin, Parks’s protégée, was seen as “feisty,” “uncontrollable,” “profane,” and emotional” by some community leaders who worried that she was too young and not of the right social standing to organize a broader campaign around . . . . Mrs. Parks hoped that Highlander would help her find a way to accomplish that. “I wanted our leaders there to organize and be strong enough to back up and support any young person who would be a litigant, if there should be some action in protest to segregation and mistreatment.” According to Colvin, Parks was the only adult leader who kept up with her that summer.
What mythologizing her says about us and how we view history.
Jeanne Theoharis: “A statue was the way we were going to remember the civil rights movement, and so she gets trapped in this image of this long-ago problem that we had in this country. And in many ways the statue reduced and trapped what her legacy actually asks of us.”
The same day her statue was revealed, South Carolina amped its voter suppression tactics. So much for the memorial power of statues and monuments. This is why we are immensely grateful for both Theoharis’s biography and the documentary. We get Parks’s full story, her political philosophy, her complexities as a lifelong activist. We also see how civil rights history is equally our civil rights present.