Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. She is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and has written extensively about the civil rights and Black Power movements.
Born on Feb. 4, 1913, today would have been Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday. On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system that would help spark the civil rights movement. Today we spend the hour looking at Rosa Parks’ life with historian Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new book, "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks." Often described as a tired seamstress, no troublemaker, Parks was in fact a dedicated civil rights activist involved with the movement long before and after her historic action on the Montgomery bus. "Here we have, in many ways, one of the most famous Americans of the 20th century, and yet treated just like a sort of children’s book hero," Theoharis says. "We diminish her legacy by making it about a single day, a single act, as opposed to the rich and lifelong history of resistance that was actually who Rosa Parks was." We also air audio of Rosa Parks in her own words. In the midst of the boycott in April of 1956, she spoke to Pacifica Radio about the action she took. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: A hundred years ago today, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was born. It was February 4th, 1913. On December 1st, 1955, when she was 42 years old, she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested, convicted of violating the state’s segregation laws. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system that would help spark the modern-day civil rights movement and launch Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We want to go to a clip of Rosa Parks, in her own words. In the midst of the boycott, April 1956, she spoke to Pacifica Radio about the action she took.
ROSA PARKS: I left work on my way home, December 1st, 1955, about 6:00 in the afternoon. I boarded the bus downtown Montgomery on Court Square. As the bus proceeded out of town on the third stop, the white passengers had filled the front of the bus. When I got on the bus, the rear was filled with colored passengers, and they were beginning to stand. The seat I occupied was the first of the seats where the Negro passengers take as they—on this route. The driver noted that the front of the bus was filled with white passengers, and there would be two or three men standing. He looked back and asked that the seat where I had taken, along with three other persons: one in a seat with me and two across the aisle were seated. He demanded the seats that we were occupying. The other passengers there reluctantly gave up their seats. But I refused to do so.
I want to make very certain that it is understood that I had not taken a seat in the white section, as has been reported in many cases. An article came out in the newspaper on Friday morning about the Negro woman overlooked segregation. She was seated in the front seat, the white section of the bus and refused to take a seat in the rear of the bus. That was the first newspaper account. The seat where I occupied, we were in the custom of taking this seat on the way home, even though at times on this same bus route, we occupied the same seat with whites standing, if their space had been taken up, the seats had been taken up. I was very much surprised that the driver at this point demanded that I remove myself from the seat.
The driver said that if I refused to leave the seat, he would have to call the police. And I told him, "Just call the police." He then called the officers of the law. They came and placed me under arrest, violation of the segregation law of the city and state of Alabama in transportation. I didn’t think I was violating any. I felt that I was not being treated right, and that I had a right to retain the seat that I had taken as a passenger on the bus. The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. They placed me under arrest.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Rosa Parks speaking in April 1956 in the midst of the Montgomery bus boycott. She had refused to stand up for a white passenger just a few months before, December 1st, 1955.
Rosa Parks is often described as a tired seamstress, no troublemaker. The fact was, she was a troublemaker, a first-class one. At the time of her arrest, she was secretary of the local NAACP. She raised money to defend the Scottsboro Boys in a rape case that was trumped up, attended trainings at the Highlander Folk School of Tennessee. In fact, she had sat down on the bus before and refused to get up for white passengers. When she died in October 2005, she became the first African-American woman to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
Well, I just recently sat down with Jeanne Theoharis, historian, author of the new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. She is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College who’s written extensively about the civil rights and Black Power movements. I began by asking her to tell us the story of Rosa Parks.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: This is a story of a life history of activism, of a life history, as she would put it, of being rebellious, right, that starts decades before her historic bus stand and continues decades after. And so, very much what the story I’m trying to tell in this book is the story of that scope. It begins: Her grandfather was a supporter of Marcus Garvey, and so that is really where she gets her start, is with her family, her mother and grandparents. And they sort of inculcate her in a sense of pride and a sense that you demand and expect respect from people around you. And so, it is that spirit that she then brings into the world. She marries Raymond Parks, the first real activist she ever met.
AMY GOODMAN: Marcus Garvey was?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Marcus Garvey headed the Universal Negro Improvement Association. He was a Pan-Africanist and also a proponent of sort of black nationalism and black pride. And her grandfather was a supporter.
So, she meets her husband, Raymond Parks, and he is working on the Scottsboro case. This is 1931. And the Scottsboro case, these are nine young men, ages 12 to 19, who get arrested riding the rails. Right? This is the Great Depression. And very quickly, the charge turns to rape, and very quickly, they are all sentenced to death, except the youngest one. And so, a support movement grows up—
AMY GOODMAN: These are black boys—
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Black boys.
AMY GOODMAN: —teenagers, and white young women.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Girls.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Basically, these young boys are riding the train, like many people did. When they get arrested, it is discovered there are two young white women riding the train. And it is that moment where these nine young men—again, ages 12 to 19—where the charge then turns to rape. They were not originally arrested for rape. And so this support defense committee, this grassroots defense committee, grows to defend these nine young men. And Raymond Parks is part of that movement, and that’s what he’s doing when she meets him. And so, he’s sort of the first activist she met, and in many ways, that—her political development as an adult starts with sort of being a newlywed with Raymond and working on the Scottsboro case.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to the Scottsboro Boys?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Ultimately, they are not—they are not executed, and that movement really prevents that travesty of justice from happening.
So then, in 1943, she sees a picture of a classmate attending a local NAACP meeting, and she realizes that women can be part of the NAACP, and so she decides to go and attend a Montgomery NAACP meeting. And she’s the only woman there. And they’re having branch elections, and so she is elected branch secretary at her very first meeting in 1943. And that begins a decade of activism, right, before her bus arrest, where she is working with the NAACP.
And she’s working with a man by the name of E.D. Nixon. And E.D. Nixon is a sleeping car porter, and he’s active in the union of sleeping car porters. And he and Rosa Parks want to transform the branch into a more activist branch, and so he actually runs for president and wins in 1945. And he and Parks set about to investigate cases of white brutality, work on black voter registration. And this is very controversial. And in fact there is controversy in the branch. There are many middle-class members who oppose this. They try to unseat Nixon and, to a certain extent, Parks. But that does not work.
And so, for this decade before her stand, she is doing this very dangerous work. You know, I think we say NAACP today, and it sounds not so dangerous. But to be a NAACP activist in the '40s, doing what she's doing—she’s traveling the state, she’s taking testimony of people, she’s trying to get them to sign affidavits—that is extremely courageous work. And there’s sort of only a small handful of people in Montgomery, you know, sort of committed to doing that work.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how does this moment happen? Actually, as you point out in the book, it wasn’t the first time Rosa Parks sat down on the bus and refused to get up. But explain what was different, when she tried it the first time and when she tried it in 1955.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So there’s a—right, as you mention, there is a longer history of bus resistance in Montgomery. There had been numerous cases sort of in the decade after World War II, before her arrest in '55, of people getting arrested on the bus. And she's very familiar with many of these cases, so she knows what can happen. A neighbor of hers in 1950 is arrested, thrown off the bus and killed by police. The young Claudette Colvin, in March of 1955, is manhandled by police when she is arrested for her refusal to move. Parks herself had made various stands on the bus. She abhorred the practice that many bus drivers insisted on, where black people would have to pay in the front, get off the bus, and reboard in the back of the bus. And she refused to do that. She had been kicked off the bus by this very same bus driver a decade earlier for refusing to do that. She had had trouble with other bus drivers. She describes some bus driver passing her by because he didn’t—you know, he felt like she was a trouble—you know, she raised trouble. So she had this sort of history of bus resistance. There is this larger history of bus resistance in Montgomery. And then we get to December 1st, 1955.
One other thing is, that summer in August, she had gone for a two-week workshop to Highlander Folk School. They were having a workshop on school desegregation. This is 1955. So, we have the historic decision in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education, but then the Supreme Court comes back in '55, right, and refuses to put a timetable on it, right? It's the historic words: "with all deliberate speed." And so, activists, like Parks, like Myles Horton and Septima Clark, who were running the Highlander workshops at the time—
AMY GOODMAN: In Tennessee.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: In Tennessee. This is a—this is a workshop to bring together people who want to push for and make a plan to implement school desegregation, because the court is clearly not going to press it forward. So she attends this workshop in August, and it is a very important and transformative time for her. She describes it as the first time she felt like she could discuss things with white people and not feel hostility. She’s obviously—there are 48 people attending this workshop. These are all people committed to this work of school desegregation. So, both—her own spirit really lifts. She talks about loving Myles Horton’s sense of humor, getting to just eat and be in a interracial space, that was a matter-of-fact interracial space, that just—that people just ate together, they shared rooms together, they sat outside together, that that freedom was also transformative, personally.
So she comes back, and then, in some ways, the atmosphere of the segregation in Montgomery, the conditions become harder to bear, I think. So, the evening of December 1st, 1955, she’s gotten off work. She actually decides to wait for a less crowded bus, so she goes to a drugstore, buys a few things and boards the bus around 5:30 at night. She sits in the middle section, right? One of the myths is that she was sitting in the white section; she was not. She was sitting in the middle section. The middle section was sort of a no-man’s land, in that the bus driver could ask you to move from that section even though Montgomery city code at the time said black people were not—did not have to get up out of their seats if there was no seats available. But bus drivers routinely violated that city code. So, that night, she’s sitting in the middle section. There are four black people sitting in this row. And at the third stop, the bus fills up, and there is one white man standing. And by the terms of Montgomery segregation, all four people will have to get up so that one white man can sit down. And the bus driver, James Blake, who, like all bus drivers in Montgomery, is carrying a gun, orders them to move. And she refuses.
He says, "I’m going to have you arrested." She says, "You may do that." He gets off the bus, and he first calls the supervisor, his supervisor. And the supervisor says, "Well, get her off the bus." The supervisor—I want to repeat that—just says, "Get her off." He does not say, "Have her arrested." Blake calls the police. The police come and evict her from the bus. And she believes the police don’t want to arrest her. It is Blake who sort of takes that sort of final historical step and says—
AMY GOODMAN: And he’s a white driver.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: He’s a white driver. All the drivers in Montgomery are white. I think one of the less-known facets of the Montgomery bus boycott is that it’s also pressing for black bus drivers. So, yes, he is a white driver. The police—she describes also, in those moments, while Blake is off the bus calling, people grumbling—right, people are clearly nervous. What’s going to happen? The police, you know, take her off the bus. Blake says he wants to sign a warrant. He’s going to come after his run to sign the warrant. And they take her to jail.
And she describes the moment in various ways. She describes it as she had been pushed as far as she could be pushed and that to get up meant that she consented to this, and she did not consent. But one of my favorite passages is also that she talks about finding her arrest annoying. And I think this speaks to how she does not necessarily believe that some movement is going to happen, right? She’s taking this stand because she thinks it’s important. But she finds it annoying because she’s actually working on this youth workshop for the weekend, and she sees this sort of as a distraction, and now she’s gotten herself arrested, right? And who knows how long this is going to take? And who knows what’s going to happen? And who knows if some sort of violent thing is going to happen to her? And so, in that moment, it’s a very hard moment, and then it’s also a moment where she in no way can see what’s about to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeanne Theoharis is the author of the new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. On this hundredth anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks, we’ll continue our conversation in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete Seeger singing "We Shall Overcome." He wrote it with others, the enduring anthem of the civil rights movement, at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where Rosa Parks trained. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to our conversation with historian Jeanne Theoharis, author of the book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. I asked her about the fateful day, December 1st, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to obey a white bus driver, James Blake, who ordered her to give up her seat to a white passenger. I asked how long Rosa Parks was detained and what she did next.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: She’s held there about three or four hours. She calls home, and her mother is terrified. "Have you been beaten?" She says, "No." And so, her husband starts to get money together to come get her. Meanwhile, someone on the bus goes to tell E.D. Nixon. And E.D. Nixon calls, can’t find out any information, and then calls a white civil rights kind of couple in town by the name of Virginia and Clifford Durr and gets Clifford Durr, who is also a lawyer, to call and find out what’s happened to her. So, both Raymond Parks and Nixon and the Durrs all come to—down and bail her out. And they all go back to the Parkses’ apartment.
AMY GOODMAN: And the Durrs are white, famous civil rights activists.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: The Durrs, famous, whites, activists, leftists. So they all go back to the Parkses’ apartment that night to talk about what happens next, because Nixon, once he knows that she’s OK, is, in a measure, delighted, because she’s exactly the kind of person that is both respected in the community, she’s middle-aged, she’s 42, she’s super tough, right? so he knows—he trusts that she’s not going to flinch under the kind of pressure that’s going to be brought to bear. And so he really wants her to be a test case. And at first, her husband is very nervous both for her safety and their safety, but also because people hadn’t necessarily stayed together around other cases. So he’s worried. But they decide that she is going to go forward with this case.
So she calls a young lawyer and friend of hers, a black lawyer by the name of Fred Gray, to ask him to represent her. And Fred Gray calls Jo Ann Robinson, who’s the head of the Women’s Political Council, a professor at Alabama State. And the Women’s Political Council had been very active around these issues. And Jo Ann Robinson mobilizes that night, and they decide to call for a one-day boycott on the Monday when Parks is going to be arraigned in court. And so Robinson actually sneaks into Alabama State College in the middle of the night with two students and runs off 35,000 leaflets in the middle of the night. At about 3 a.m., she calls E.D.—this is Robinson—and says, "This is what we’re planning." And so, at 5:00 in the morning, Nixon starts to call some of the ministers in town to get them on board for this one-day plan. And it is not 'til midday, when Rosa Parks, as she often does, takes her lunch to Fred Gray's law office, that she finds out sort of what’s happening.
And so, they are planning, again, for just a one-day boycott, at this point, on the Monday. And people are very worried. Will people do it? Will people stick together? And then Monday comes, and it is this amazing—people stay off the bus. She describes it as sort of the best moment of the whole thing. And that night, at a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, people decide to carry on the boycott sort of—and make it, you know, a longer boycott.
AMY GOODMAN: And they choose a young minister who’s just come into town to be their leader.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Martin Luther King.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: They choose him for a number of reasons. In part, he’s young. He’s new. He’s not—he doesn’t have any—he’s not firmly aligned with one side or the other. His church is actually located right across—it’s downtown; it’s right across from the Capitol. So they have the first meeting—the ministers have the first meeting at his church on E.D. Nixon’s sort of idea, in part because it’s so centrally located, and again, because Nixon sees that King doesn’t have enemies in town. And then, it is at Holt Street where we get the first taste of sort of Martin Luther King’s sort of, you know, kind of political and oratorical brilliance, right? because the speech he gives that night is an incredible speech.
AMY GOODMAN: December 5th, 1955.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Rosa Parks helped to—helps to launch Dr. Martin Luther King.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Yes, she does. Yes, she does. And in many ways, she—there’s this interesting moment. So, on Monday, right, she goes to court. She’s very quickly convicted. And then she goes back with Fred Gray to his law office. She doesn’t go back to work. She doesn’t go home. She goes to his office, and she answers—
AMY GOODMAN: She worked at Woolworth’s?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Ah, sorry, she worked at Montgomery Fair. She’s an assistant tailor. Montgomery Fair is the biggest department store in Montgomery at that point. So she’s—she’s working in the men’s shop. But she doesn’t go back to work. And she answers phones in Fred Gray’s office that Monday, and she doesn’t tell people it’s her, right? So this is sort of the paradox of how she negotiates this role. So she’s—she wants to be useful, so she’s answering all these calls. People are wanting to know what’s happening, what they should do. She’s not saying it’s her. And then, meanwhile, she stays and answers phones, while Fred Gray and Nixon and King have a meeting where the Montgomery Improvement Association will be born, right? So, in some sense, she—she’s sort of doing this kind of behind-the-scenes work while the kind of leadership is being formed on that Monday afternoon.
AMY GOODMAN: You talked about December ’55 coming just a few months after the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi—
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —fourteen-year-old African-American boy, seared into the history and consciousness of this country, what happened to him. Describe what happened and how Rosa Parks was affected by it.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: The lynching of Emmett Till happens in August of 1955. But just days before she makes her stand, they’ve had this mass meeting. So, part of what happens is, the two men—because of the attention to the lynching, the two men are actually put on trial, which is sort of a rarity, but they are acquitted. This is Bryant and Milam. And so, a campaign comes up to kind of raise awareness around this, sort of organized in part by Mamie Till, his mother, and T.M. Howard. And so they’ve had—T.M. Howard comes to Montgomery just days before, and they’ve had this big mass meeting. And so, it’s very much on her mind. When she talks about sitting there in those moments, she talks about thinking about her grandfather, she talks about thinking about Emmett Till. And she’s—
AMY GOODMAN: When had he come into town, in Montgomery?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Howard comes in—I think it’s just literally four or five days. They’ve had this big mass meeting.
AMY GOODMAN: Four or five days...?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Before her arrest, so—
AMY GOODMAN: So at the end of November, right after Thanksgiving.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Exactly, exactly. And so it’s really fresh, right? And the organizing is really fresh, right? So, the lynching itself happened in August, but the kind of movement to sort of raise awareness is happening and has come to Montgomery just days before her bus stand. And so she’s very much thinking about that. And the bus driver says, you know, "You all should make it light on yourself and get up." And she thinks to herself, "This is not making it light on us as a people." And she’s thinking about Till, and she’s thinking about this kind of longer history, you know, and the Klan coming to her grandparents’ house, you know, and sort of coming by. And so, it’s very much kind of how she’s—you know, it’s with her that day.
AMY GOODMAN: The Klan came to her grandparents’ house?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: And her grandfather would sit out at night, often with a gun, to protect the house. And she would sometimes sit with him. After World War I, there’s this sort of backlash partly against black service during World War I, and there’s all of this kind of this uptake in violence in 1919, and so that also comes to Pine Level, to Alabama, where she grows up. And so she very much talks about remembering her grandfather sitting out on the porch with a gun, again, ready for sort of the Klan, if they come.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. When Rosa Parks died in 2005, there was a huge memorial service for her in Washington, D.C. She was the first African-American woman to lay in state at the Capitol Rotunda, then her body brought to a church before the big funeral in Detroit. And I remember the networks talking about Rosa Parks. I mean, there’s no question it was a big moment, and the media took notice. I remember CNN saying Rosa Parks was a tired seamstress—
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —she was no troublemaker. But Rosa Parks, as you point out, was a first-class troublemaker.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: She was.
AMY GOODMAN: So how did the image of her change? What did people understand at the time in 1955?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I mean, I think there’s sort of two different things at work. Certainly during the boycott itself, they background Rosa Parks’s political history for the safety of the movement, right? Immediately, I mean—
AMY GOODMAN: You mean they put it on the back burner.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: And they play it down, right? They tend to talk about her as a good Christian woman. They tend to talk about her—and this is King, this is the black press, this is even Parks herself, right? They don’t tend to foreground her political history, in part because civil rights protests—this is 1955—are getting—you know, this is the Cold War. They’re immediately redbaited. All sorts of crazy rumors come up about her: She’s a communist plant, she’s an NAACP plant, she’s Mexican, she has a car, she’s not even black—I mean, just all manner of rumors in Montgomery spring up. And so, in part to counter the idea that these are outside agitators, outside forces, coming to—you know, coming to Montgomery, there is a tendency to talk about her, right, just as a kind of local woman, seamstress, Christian, right? So, that obviously then, in the decades afterwards, takes on a life of its own, in terms of her political history.
The other thing, I think, that contributes to this is Rosa Parks leaves Montgomery in '57 and spends the second half of her political life in Detroit, sort of fighting the racism of the Jim Crow North. And so, in many ways, she leaves the South as this movement that she's helped to galvanize sort of takes on, and she has this new place in which she’s sort of struggling in and part of a movement and that is not getting the same kind of attention.
But fast-forward—I think, by the '90s, right, and 2000s, right? In many ways, in the wake of the establishment of the King holiday, we see the civil rights—the history of the civil rights movement begin to get kind of reshaped and twisted into this very happy, limited story of a—this American movement that rises up and changes America, and then we vanquished racism, and there's this dreamy Martin Luther King and this quiet Rosa Parks. They’re sort of the two people we get in that narrative. And that’s a very happy story, and it makes us feel good about ourselves as a nation. And that story, I think, is part of what is at the center of the kind of national spectacle made of her passing.
AMY GOODMAN: Who was Rosa Parks’ hero?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Rosa Parks’ hero, she describes as Malcolm X. She very much—she loved, she admired, she had—I mean, she had tremendous admiration for King, but she describes Malcolm X as her personal hero. Rosa Parks was a lifelong believer in self-defense. Obviously she gets that from her grandfather. In many ways, Malcolm X reminds her of her grandfather. Malcolm X’s willingness to sort of talk about sort of Northern liberalism and Northern hypocrisy, Malcolm X’s very early opposition to the war in Vietnam—all of these things are very similar to her sort of political outlook, and therefore, I think, she very much looks to him.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s interesting, talking about Vietnam. You write about Rosa Parks as an internationalist.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right, right. I mean, she is a very early opponent of the war in Vietnam, as is John Conyers. And she—in many ways, she—she comes to volunteer on John Conyers’ very first campaign, right, for this new—
AMY GOODMAN: Longtime congressmember, dean of the Congressional Black Caucus.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. And he runs for the very first time. Michigan gets a new congressional seat in 1964 that looks like it’s going to, like, perhaps elect a second African American to Congress from Michigan. And this young civil rights lawyer, right, is running on this platform of jobs, peace and justice, right? So he’s running on a kind of anti-Vietnam platform in '64. Rosa Parks, very attracted to this, volunteers on his campaign in 1964 and gets Martin Luther King to come to Detroit on behalf of Conyers, right, basically prevails on King. King is staying out of doing this kind of political stuff; he doesn't. But he can’t say no to her. And this is a very crowded primary; eight people are running. Conyers wins by less than a hundred votes. And so, one of the things that he thinks really contributes is King coming, and part of what gets King to come to Mont—to Detroit, excuse me, is Rosa Parks asking him. And so, one of the first thing Conyers does is he hires Rosa Parks to work in his Detroit office. And he is very much in the forefront of kind of the opposition to Vietnam. And so—and she—and that’s—both of them are sort of working on that, and so she takes—she is part of that sort of—like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She’s supportive of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, of the Winter Soldier hearings that are held in Detroit.
AMY GOODMAN: The American soldiers who came back from Vietnam and talked about the atrocities they committed there.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. And those hearings are held in Detroit, and then John Conyers actually goes—you know, is sort of one of the voices to kind of make—to bring those—bring the Winter Soldier hearings to sort of Congress.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s when John Kerry became famous, as this soldier who’s returned and goes to Congress and testifies against the Vietnam War.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Absolutely, absolutely. And so, that happens in Detroit, and it happens, in part, through kind of Conyers’, you know, kind of work on it.
AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t Rosa Parks run for Congress in 1964 when the second seat opened up in Detroit?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: She is not someone who seeks or wants that kind of public limelight. She finds her fame sort of hard to bear. She is a sort of stalwart activist. She is a steadfast activist. But Conyers talks about her speaking with her presence, that she went to tons of things, she did what she could do to support, you know, prisoner defense committees, to support the anti-Vietnam—all sorts of movements, but she is not someone who likes to be in—in the front, in the limelight, in the way that running for Congress would have been.
AMY GOODMAN: Historian Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new book, The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, has written extensively about the civil rights and Black Power movements. When we come back, we speak with Theoharis about what happened after Rosa Parks was arrested and convicted in 1956, how she dealt with losing her job. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Patti LaBelle’s group, LaBelle. "Dear Rosa" is the song. The group reunited in 2005 to record this musical tribute. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. In this Black History Month special on this 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosa Parks, we continue our conversation with Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. I asked her what happened after Rosa Parks was arrested and convicted, how she dealt with losing her job.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, about a month in, she’s working at, again, this department store downtown, Montgomery Fair. And about a month in, they let her go. And then, simultaneously, her husband is a barber at the Air Force base. And they basically say—they pass this rule; they say there can be no talk of the boycott or of that woman in the barbershop. And for a political, proud man like Raymond Parks, that’s untenable. So we’re basically a month in, and both of them have lost their jobs.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is a month into the bus boycott.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Yes. So we have another year of the bus boycott. So, for the—for the majority of the bus boycott, they do not have steady work. She spends most of that year traveling the country fundraising for the Montgomery Improvement Association and the NAACP, basically turning this local struggle into a national movement and also raising money. Part of what sustains the boycott is this amazingly organized carpool, but that carpool requires money, and so they send some of the ministers out, but they also send Rosa Parks out. And so, here she’s doing all of this fundraising for the movement at this time when her own family is in sort of a serious economic trouble.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, "carpool"? Explain what happened in that year that African Americans did not use the bus system of Montgomery, Alabama.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, part of how they are able to do this for, again, almost 13 months is they developed this carpool system where you pay the fare, the bus fare, so it’s the 10 cents bus fare, and they set up all of these pickup stations, like 40-odd pickup stations across the city. And you go there, and then you can get a ride sort of across town to—if you need to work, if you need to go to the doctor, if you need to do shopping. So it’s this amazingly elaborate system to—sort of independent transportation system. Churches fundraise and by church vehicles to help with this. There’s this amazing cross-class sort of solidarity, where sort of middle- and upper-class black people loan their cars or let their cars be driven in the carpool.
AMY GOODMAN: And the bus would still go their routes empty?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Yes. And so the bus fare goes up. They start to cut routes, right? because the majority of passengers on the bus in Montgomery are black people, so when black people stop riding the bus in Montgomery, it takes a huge economic toll. There’s a whole kind of white segregationist movement to sort of like: "We have to ride the bus. We have to stand up for the bus. You need to give your money to the bus."
On the other side—but, yeah, so this carpool is part of how they sustain this movement, right? It’s a very organized movement. But they realize that they’re going to need to have—to do fundraising outside of Montgomery, and Rosa Parks is part of that effort. So I think the other thing when we talk about her role in the Montgomery bus boycott, we often forget even the role she plays in sustaining the boycott itself.
But it’s at a time when—so, her—they’re getting constant death threats and hate calls, so much so that her mother often will just talk on the phone all afternoon, in part so that—just to keep the line busy, because both her mother and her husband find the calls very upsetting. She’s away a lot, so she doesn’t—she says that it’s harder on them than on her. Even when the boycott ends, they still have trouble finding work, and so they actually leave Montgomery for Detroit eight months after the boycott ends, in part because they can’t find work, they’re still getting death threats. There had been some pressure and hope that the Montgomery Improvement Association would hire her. That does not happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I mean, E.D. Nixon and her sort of are a little bit seen as sort of outsiders. They are working-class. They are, in many ways, more political. They have this longer political history. They are trying to start this Alabama voter registration project, much—you know, sort of foreshadowing what the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party project will look like. And they’re trying to get this money for this. They are—they don’t; they are unable to get it. She would have run it full time.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell me what happened at the end of 1956. How did the bus boycott end?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: The bus boycott actually ends because the Supreme Court rules that bus—that the buses have to be desegregated. Sort of shortly after—
AMY GOODMAN: For the whole country?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: For Montgomery. So, in—so she’s arrested in December. And one of the things that they had learned, because, again, these are seasoned activists, and there had been cases before that, is they got worried that it was going to get held up in state court, her case. And so, in February 1956, Fred Gray, who’s the black lawyer we were talking about, files a new case right into federal court using other plaintiffs, other than Rosa Parks, right? So it’s a case that—the title of the case becomes Browder v. Gayle. Browder is Aurelia Browder. She is one woman. Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith—other people who had had—been arrested and had trouble on the bus. Rosa Parks is not actually part of that case, and I think that’s for a couple of different reasons. They don’t want to risk it getting thrown out because she has this separate case in state court. But also I think they are worried by the NAACP, in the wake of Brown, is increasingly getting redbaited. You know, by June of 1956, it will be outlawed in the state of Alabama.
AMY GOODMAN: How was it outlawed, the NAACP, June 1956?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I mean, they basically come—many, particularly Southern, states come after the NAACP. They say it is a foreign organization. They ask that they turn their records over. The NAACP refuses to turn their membership records over, because obviously that is—that is putting all of their members in harm’s way.
AMY GOODMAN: Thurgood Marshall, the—later would be Supreme Court justice, came out of the NAACP.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. And so it’s this—I mean, it is—if we’re thinking about sort of Septima Clark at Highlander, she loses her job in South Carolina in part because she refuses to give up her membership, and you can’t be a civil—you can’t be a teacher, you can’t be a civil servant in South Carolina and be a member of the NAACP. So she is working—she is running those workshops at Highlander when Rosa Parks meets her in 1955 because—in part because she has had to give up her job because of her connection to the NAACP. So I think the other reason why I think they ultimately don’t have Parks on this case is the fear of her history with the NAACP and the kind of redbaiting that’s going on. And so, it makes it—so, again, for these two different reasons, both procedural and the kind of larger climate.
So that case then makes its way through the federal courts up to the Supreme Court, and so it is actually that court case and the Supreme Court ruling that Montgomery’s buses will be desegregated. And so, on December 20th, we have those very famous pictures, I think, that all of us have seen, right, of Martin Luther King in the front of the bus and then that very iconic picture of Rosa Parks—not one that is my—I don’t—not my personal favorite, right? She’s looking—she’s in profile. She’s looking out the window. There is a white man sitting behind her. It’s a staged photo. That white man is actually a reporter. It is staged, Look magazine. Most of the media, interestingly, doesn’t care about her; they are with Martin Luther King that day. It’s this—again, Look magazine comes and finds her at her house and takes that picture, and then now that picture is iconic. Obviously we saw President Obama sort of tweet a picture, like he—he goes to an—there’s a picture taken of President Obama in the classic Rosa Parks bus in the Rosa Parks pose that we saw him tweet in December on the anniversary of the bus boycott. So—
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, it’s staged.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: That’s it.
AMY GOODMAN: But certainly the bus boycott wasn’t.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Absolutely, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m looking at a photograph right now in your book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, of Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt just before a civil rights rally here in New York at Madison Square Garden.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Absolutely. It’s—so, Rosa Parks meets Eleanor Roosevelt in New York in 1956. As I was saying, she’s doing all this traveling and raising money and the profile of the movement. And Eleanor Roosevelt and Myles Horton—again, who is the head of Highlander—she meets Eleanor Roosevelt through Myles Horton. And Eleanor Roosevelt says to Myles Horton, "Well, you told her she was going to get redbaited, right?" And so, there’s this really interesting conversation where Eleanor Roosevelt is very aware of kind of what’s going to happen to somebody who stands out for civil rights in 1955.
And then the picture in the book is, there’s this major civil rights rally here, a fundraiser organized by Ella Baker, actually, and In Friendship, that’s held at Madison Square Garden. And Parks is out there. The picture also includes Autherine Lucy; she is the woman who desegregates the University of Alabama, very briefly, before she is kicked out for—for the riot that that ensues when she does desegregate the University of Alabama. So it’s a beautiful picture of the three of them right before that big demonstration here in—a big rally here in New York.
AMY GOODMAN: How did Rosa Parks fit into the whole Black Power movement?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Well, so she moves to Detroit in 1957, and her activism continues, and it continues in terms of sort of working against and challenging the racism of sort of this new home town and the sort of Jim Crow North, and so around housing, around jobs, around police brutality. And she is extremely active. And many of the issues that she’s long been committed to by the mid-to-late ’60s are now intersecting with this growing Black Power movement. And so, these are not new issues for her, and she is sort of delighted by sort of these new young voices in the struggle. And so, she goes to, attends many, helps out with all sorts of mobilizations, around political prisoners, right—the Wilmington Ten, Joan Little, Angela Davis.
AMY GOODMAN: The Wilmington Ten who were just exonerated, pardoned by the governor of North Carolina.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So Rosa Parks is this studfest. She’s always been very committed to criminal justice. And by the '60s, this intersects with sort of these movements to defend sort of both political prisoners and other unjustly targeted black people. She's been a longstanding proponent of changing the curriculum, of having more black history in the curriculum. She’s—again, as we talked about—a longstanding opponent of the war in Vietnam. She’s—the need for black people in political office and independent black political power—these are all issues that she has been working on for decades. And so, they become—they sort of are at the heart of the Black Power movement, and so she then starts—she then becomes part of and takes part in sort of various Black Power mobilizations. She attends the Gary Convention. She—
AMY GOODMAN: The Gary Convention being?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: The National Black Convention in Gary, Indiana, in 1972 to kind of build an independent black political sort of movement to, in many ways, sort of make the kind of national parties sort of have to sort of really take black political power seriously. She attends, in 1968, one of the first big Black Power conferences in Philadelphia. Nathan Hare tells this funny story of—she just—she would go, she would sit, she would learn, she would often do her sewing.
She takes part in the People’s Tribunal in Detroit. After the 1967 Detroit riot, part of what happens is there’s all of this police—what Conyers calls a police riot actually happens, right? There’s all of this police aggression, police violence. One of the most egregious is three young men are killed during the riot by police. The police claim a gun battle, except there are no guns found on the young men. But the police are not charged. The Detroit media refuses to kind of print a story, kind of a fuller investigation. And so they hold this People’s Tribunal in Reverend Cleage’s church and basically sort of do this public airing of it. And they have—they call witnesses. And it’s this sort of moment of kind of putting kind of Detroit police on trial in the absence of getting a real trial. She serves on the jury for that.
So she is really—she maintains her activism, right? And she shows up long after, I think—I mean, I think, in the sort of fable, right, we have the civil rights movement, we have a Civil Rights Act, we have a Voting Rights Act, and then like all is good, right? And I think when we follow the actual Rosa Parks, we see that the movement and its issues continue, because many things have not been resolved, and so she continues on. Right? And so there’s another picture in the book of her picketing outside the South African embassy in the '80s, right? She's sort of a longtime opponent of apartheid and of kind of U.S. complicity in the sort of South African apartheid. And so, here we have her in her seventies picketing outside the South African embassy against apartheid.
AMY GOODMAN: Historian Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks_. The book is just out. A hundred years ago today, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was born. It was February 4th, 1913. On December 1st, 1955, at the age of 42, she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested and convicted of violating the state’s segregation laws. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system, that led ultimately to a Supreme Court decision desegregating that system. She helped spark the civil rights movement and launch Dr. Martin Luther King. Today, the U.S. Postal Service is releasing a commemorative Rosa Parks "forever" stamp. You can go to our website to read a section of the book and to read my column, Rosa Parks, Now and Forever.forever
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