June 20, 2014 by Jean
One of the challenges for my retirement is to replace the intellectual stimulation that I have long gotten from my interactions with students, especially through class discussions. As my retirement approached this spring, I began to understand how much I had taken this intellectual stimulation for granted and that I would need to find a substitute when I was no longer teaching.
Right now, I am finding my needed intellectual stimulation primarily in books, and one of the books I borrowed from the library as my retirement began has provided a lot of food for thought. That book is Jeanne Theoharis’s political biography of Rosa Parks, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Beacon Press, 2013).
Most Americans will recognize the name of Rosa Parks, the woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 catalyzed the Montgomery bus boycott, the rise to prominence of Martin Luther King, and the US civil rights movement. If you ask people what they know about Rosa Parks, most will describe her has a tired seamstress who refused to move because her feet hurt and whose one act of defiance made her an accidental activist. Theoharis calls this the “Rosa Parks fable.”
I have long known that the Rosa Parks fable was not an accurate account. When I began to teach about the history of women’s activism in the United States, I encountered a number of accounts by African American scholars attempting to set the record straight. Most important of these was When and Where I Enter by Paula Giddings (William Morrow, 1984), a history of African American women’s activism that was required reading for my course. From Giddings, my students and I learned that Parks was a long-time activist and secretary of the Montgomery NAACP chapter, that this was not her first run-in with Montgomery bus drivers (some of whom refused to stop and pick her up because she was a “trouble maker”), that she was not the first woman who got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, that she had been part of an NAACP effort to find the right case to litigate, and that a boycott had already been planned by the Women’s Political Council, an organization of Black professional women in Montgomery, who had been watching for the right moment to put those plans into action. And we had some very lively discussions about why Giddings’ account, available since before they were born, hadn’t been taught in their schools.
Theoharis provides an account that is both broader and deeper. Her goals are to understand Parks’ Montgomery bus action in a larger context of activism, to debunk the Rosa Parks fable, and to understand why the narrative of the tired seamstress has been so persistent despite readily available information to the contrary. Theoharis shows us that long years of resistance and activism, including the activism of Rosa and Raymond Parks, provided the foundation for the civil rights movement. I was amazed to learn that well before the bus boycott, Rosa Parks had successfully registered to vote in Alabama – a difficult and dangerous accomplishment for any African American in the Jim Crow era. Even more importantly, Theoharis documents Parks’ continued life of activism after the boycott, including her work as a staffer responsible for constituent relations in Congressman John Conyers’ Detroit office, her admiration for Malcolm X, and her support of the Black Power movement. Throughout her presentation of Rosa Parks’ “rebellious life,” Jeanne Theoharis also provides an analysis of how complex interactions of race, gender, and social class worked to obscure these facts in favor of the fable of the tired seamstress. I, for one, found this analysis thought-provoking and intellectually exciting.
Having read Theoharis’s book, however, I find that I’m not satisfied with just being intellectually stimulated by it; I want to share that intellectual stimulation with others. When I was teaching, I would have found a way to bring this material into the classroom. But that option is no longer available. A few days before I left Gettysburg, I gave a talk on the history of women’s rights activism at the local high school. It was an enjoyable experience, and I may find opportunities to do the same sort of thing here in Maine. Once things have settled down a bit at home, I also hope to pursue the possibility of a book club. Meanwhile, I’ve joined Goodreads to see if that site might provide opportunities for intellectual stimulation and more food for thought through virtual discussion of interesting books.