Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

DON NOBLE: New Book on Rosa Parks Examines Her Past

Newspaper article The Tuscaloosa News

DON NOBLE: New Book on Rosa Parks Examines Her Past

Article excerpt

The author of this new biography of Rosa Parks begins by addressing an obvious concern: don't we already know, if not all there is to know, then at least all we need to know, about the life of Rosa Parks?

Her answer is a convincing no.

First, the two biographical accounts that have been done are incomplete for different reasons.

The historian Douglas Brinkley published "Rosa Parks: A Life," in 2000, but this was in Penguin Lives, a series of popular, pocket- sized, short American biographies with no footnotes, no documentation. Jim Haskins, a Demopolis native, worked with Parks on her autobiography, "Rosa Parks: My Story" (1988), but this was in a series intended for young readers.

Theoharis's is the first full, authoritative treatment of Parks and, as one reads, it becomes clear that much about her life has never been examined at all, and a good deal of what we know is skewed, in different directions for different reasons.

Theoharis writes of the "two myths of Rosa Parks" and the motives for their propagation.

The myth promoted by the civil rights movement, she suggests, is of the foot-sore, mild-mannered seamstress who on December 1, 1955, tired after a long day of work, just decided spontaneously not to give up her seat on the bus. This presents her as lady-like, pious, gentle, even meek, not angry or militant, just a fed-up human being, and this is partly true.

The myth promoted by the segregationist establishment is of a cunning NAACP plant, having been trained at the "Commie" Highlanders School in Monteagle, Tenn., waiting for her opportunity. Of course, this too is a distortion.

Theoharis suggests that the truth lies in between: Parks was often later quoted saying "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in." There was not exactly a plan in place, but she was ready.

A further goal of Theoharis is to widen our focus.

Sparking the bus boycott at the age of 42 was definitely not the only rebellious moment of Parks' 92 years.

We learn here of her decades-long involvement with civil rights before the bus boycott, of her work in voter registration and as secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, working with E.D. Nixon, who was on the job in Montgomery years before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This was a "difficult, dangerous, and ultimately demoralizing period" with little progress. "There was nothing inevitable" about the success of the 382-day boycott, Theoharis says, but, over many years, the ground had been prepared.

There are several histories of the boycott itself but, oddly, Theoharis never mentions works by Alabamians Wayne Flynt, Wayne Greenhaw or Frye Gaillard. Her method was to avoid secondary writings and do her research in letters, journals, newspapers of the period and in extensive interviews with anyone who knew Parks. …

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