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The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
Cover of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
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2014 NAACP Image Award Winner: Outstanding Literary Work – Biography / Auto Biography
2013 Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians
Choice Top 25 Academic Titles for 2013
The definitive political biography of Rosa Parks examines her six decades of activism, challenging perceptions of her as an accidental actor in the civil rights movement

Presenting a corrective to the popular notion of Rosa Parks as the quiet seamstress who, with a single act, birthed the modern civil rights movement, Theoharis provides a revealing window into Parks's politics and years of activism. She shows readers how this civil rights movement radical sought—for more than a half a century—to expose and eradicate the American racial-caste system in jobs, schools, public services, and criminal justice.

2014 NAACP Image Award Winner: Outstanding Literary Work – Biography / Auto Biography
2013 Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians
Choice Top 25 Academic Titles for 2013
The definitive political biography of Rosa Parks examines her six decades of activism, challenging perceptions of her as an accidental actor in the civil rights movement

Presenting a corrective to the popular notion of Rosa Parks as the quiet seamstress who, with a single act, birthed the modern civil rights movement, Theoharis provides a revealing window into Parks's politics and years of activism. She shows readers how this civil rights movement radical sought—for more than a half a century—to expose and eradicate the American racial-caste system in jobs, schools, public services, and criminal justice.

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  • From the Introduction From the Introduction

    National Honor/Public Mythology:
    The Passing of Rosa Parks

    On October 24, 2005, after nearly seventy years of activism, Rosa Parks died in her home in Detroit at the age of 92. Within days of her death, Rep. John Conyers Jr., who had employed Parks for twenty years in his Detroit office, introduced a resolution to have her body lie in honor. Less than two months after Hurricane Katrina and after years of partisan rancor over the social justice issues most pressing to civil rights activists like Parks, Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle rushed to pay tribute to the "mother of the civil rights movement." Parks would become the first woman and 2nd African American to lie in honor in the nation's Capitol. "Awesome" was how Willis Edwards, a longtime associate who helped organize the three-state tribute, described the numbers of the people who pulled it together.

    Parks' body was first flown to Montgomery for a public viewing and service attended by various dignitaries, including Condoleezza Rice who affirmed that "without Mrs. Parks, I probably would not be standing here today as Secretary of State." Then her body was flown to Washington DC, on a plane commanded by Lou Freeman, one of the first African American chief pilots for a commercial airline. The plane circled Montgomery twice in honor of Parks, with Freeman singing "We Shall Overcome" over the loudspeaker. "There wasn't a dry eye in the plane," recalled Parks' longtime friend, Federal Sixth Circuit Judge, Damon Keith. Her coffin was met in Washington DC by the National Guard and accompanied to its place of honor at the Capitol Rotunda.

    Forty thousand Americans came to the Capitol to bear witness to her passing. President and Mrs. Bush laid a wreath on her unadorned, cherry-wood coffin. "The Capitol Rotunda is one of America's most powerful illustrations of the values of freedom and equality upon which our republic was founded," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), resolution co-sponsor, explained to reporters, "and allowing Mrs. Parks to lie in honor here is a testament to the impact of her life on both our nation's history and future." Yet, Frist claimed Parks' stand was "not an intentional attempt to change a nation, but a singular act aimed at restoring the dignity of the individual." Her body was next taken to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church for a public memorial to an overflowing crowd.

    Her casket was then shipped back to Detroit for another public viewing at the Museum of African American History. Thousands waited in the rain to pay their respects to one of Detroit's finest. The 7-hour funeral celebration at Detroit's Greater Grace Temple attracted 4000 mourners and a parade of speakers and singers from Bill Clinton to Aretha Franklin. In their tributes, Democratic presidential hopefuls focused on Parks' quietness: Senator Barack Obama praised Parks as a "small quiet woman whose name will be remembered" while Senator Hilary Clinton spoke of the importance of "quiet Rosa Parks moments." As thousands more waited outside to see the dramatic spectacle, a horse-drawn carriage carried Mrs. Parks' coffin to Woodlawn Cemetery where she was buried next to her husband and mother.[iv] Six weeks later, President Bush signed a bill ordering a permanent statue of Parks placed in the U.S. Capitol, the first ever of an African American, explaining, "By refusing to give in, Rosa Parks showed that one candle can light the darkness. ...Like so many institutionalized evils, once the ugliness of these laws was held up to the light, they could not stand...and as a result, the cruelty and...

About the Author-
  • Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She received an A.B. in Afro-American studies from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan. She is the author or coauthor of six books and numerous articles on the black freedom struggle and the contemporary politics of race in the United States
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 12, 2012
    In her introduction to this biography, Brooklyn College political scientist Theoharis (coauthor of Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside of the South) notes the common perception of Rosa Parks (1913–2005): “hidden in plain sight, celebrated and paradoxically relegated to be a hero for children.” Into that gap, Theoharis submits a lavishly well-documented study of Parks’s life and career as an activist. In tracing her work with the Montgomery NAACP and other groups from the 1930s onwards, and then following her move from Alabama after the 1956 bus boycott to Detroit, Theoharis maps a lifetime devoted to civil rights, thereby destabilizing our notions of Parks as a “tired seamstress” who simply kept her seat on a bus one day in 1955. The “iconography of Parks,” as Theoharis shows, can be used as an entry point for understanding the broader trends in the historiography of the civil rights movement. She notes how the “national fable” of Parks offers “its untarnished happy ending and its ability to reflect the best possibilities of the United States,” thus downplaying more subversive philosophies like the Black Power movement, which Parks also championed. Theoharis calls for a reconsideration of Parks’s legacy and of the movement she, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others are responsible for initiating. 16 b&w illus.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from November 15, 2012
    Theoharis (Political Science/Brooklyn Coll.; co-author: Not Working: Latina Immigrants, Low-Wage Jobs, and the Failure of Welfare, 2006, etc.) has discovered the soul of Rosa Parks (1913-2005), and it's not that of a docile, middle-age seamstress. The author successfully goes "behind the icon of Rosa Parks to excavate and examine the scope of her political life." Parks learned to stand up for her rights as a child; she never backed down from black or white, rich or poor when she knew she was right. She began working for civil rights early in her life and was the first secretary of the Montgomery NAACP in 1947. She also wasn't the first to refuse to relinquish her seat on the bus, but the strength of her character and a push too far by the local police made her the poster child for the struggle. Her arrest was the impetus for what began as a one-day Montgomery Bus Boycott. That, in turn, united the black population, which had been deeply divided by class and education. While her refusal wasn't planned in advance, the bus boycott was no spontaneous action. Parks continued to work for equality after she and her husband moved to Detroit, where racism was as bad, if not worse, as that in the South. How Theoharis learned the true nature of this woman is a story in itself. Parks always stood in the background, never volunteered information about herself and eschewed fame. There were no letters to consult; even her autobiography exposed little of the woman's personality. She hid her light under a bushel, and it has taken an astute author to find the real Parks. Even though her refusal to give up her bus seat sparked a revolution, Rosa Parks was no accidental heroine. She was born to it, and Theoharis ably shows us how and why.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    November 1, 2012

    It's time for a big new biography of Rosa Parks, whose refusal to cede a bus seat helped launched the Civil Rights Movement. From the author of four books on civil rights issues.

    Copyright 2012 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    November 15, 2012
    The national narrative on Parks is that of a reluctant champion of civil rights whose single action was refusing to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Historian Theoharis offers a complex portrait of a forceful, determined woman who had long been active before the boycott she inspired and who had an even longer career in civil rights afterward. The image of a quiet seamstress who undermined Jim Crow minimizes Parks' stature as an activist and obscures continued injustice and inequality, Theoharis argues. Drawing on a decade of research, the historian chronicles Parks' personal journey to resistance, her work in the South challenging segregation and promoting voter registration, and her continued efforts in Detroit to address racial restrictions that had ostensibly been resolved by civil rights legislation. Theoharis details the cost of the bus boycott to Parks and her family, including decades of death threats; her strong admiration for radical black activists; and the controversies that continue to surround the disposition of her archival material as factions fight to claim rights to her iconic image.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2012, American Library Association.)

  • Julian Bond, chairman emeritus, NAACP "In the first sweeping history of Parks's life, Theoharis shows us...[that] Parks not only sat down on the bus; she stood on the right side of justice for her entire life."
  • Melissa Harris-Perry, host, MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks will undoubtedly be hailed as one of the most important scholarly contributions to civil rights history ever written. ... I can't wait to assign this book in every class I teach."
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. "Theoharis brings all of her talents as a political scientist and historian of the civil rights movement to bear on this illuminating biography of the great Rosa Parks."
  • Charles Blow, The New York Times "The Rosa Parks in this book is as much Malcolm X as she is Martin Luther King Jr."
  • Nell Irvin Painter, The New York Times Book Rreview "Richly informative, calmly passionate and much needed."
  • Nikki Giovanni, Poet "Charisma is not a word often used to describe Rosa Parks yet we have to recognize her star. The Rosa Parks challenge to the political system was deep and lasting even while she never raised her voice. The first female Speaker of the House of Representatives once said, 'You can get a lot done if you don't need to take credit for it.' She took a page from the book of Parks. Theoharis' scholarship brings forth a woman whom many followed without ever realizing they were. She was courageous and strong. She also had a wonderful sense of humor. And an awesome sense of responsibility. This is a much needed book on the woman who is, arguably, the most important person in the last half of the twentieth century. Just as the Lincoln Memorial needs a statue of Frederick Douglass gently bending over with a pen in his hand for Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. needs a statue of Rosa Parks just one or two steps ahead mouthing the words: 'Come...
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Jeanne Theoharis
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