The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis: Book Review

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The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Park Young Reader Edition by Jeanne Theoharis Book Cover
Title: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Young Readers Edition)
Content Warning: Violence, racism, sexism, brief mentions of rape

I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of Rosa Parks was limited to her refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus in the Jim Crow south. To quote Julian Bond in this book, I more or less bought the narrative that “Rosa sat down, Martin stood up, then the white folks saw the light and saved the day.” Yes, that’s an oversimplification but there’s enough truth there to hurt.

Rosa’s fight for civil rights did not begin that day on the bus on December 1, 1955. The granddaughter of formerly enslaved people, she learned about the contributions of Black people to history, science, and culture, even at a young age. Her husband, Raymond, was active in the NAACP when she met him. Rosa attended her first meeting in 1943. A shy woman, she still spoke up about the issues that mattered to her, even when she moved north to Detroit. She sometimes felt that the NAACP moved too slowly so she threw her support to more radical groups. Educating youth and empowering them to demand equal treatment was her lifelong passion.

Dr. Theoharis also looks at Rosa’s activity in the civil rights movement through a feminist lens. It’s been a while since I finished reading the book so I don’t remember if Rosa herself ever commented on women’s roles in the movement. But it’s hard to overlook once the author makes her argument. Even Pauli Murray commented on it when organizing the March on Washington. “I have been increasingly perturbed over the blatant disparity between the major role which Negro women have played and are playing in the crucial grass-roots levels of our struggle and the minor role of leadership they have been assigned in the national policy-making decisions.” Think back to any of the most famous images of the civil rights movement. Women are always present. But how many of these courageous women can the average person name?

I read a version of the book targeted for young adults so I assume some of the worst violence has been removed. But the book was still emotionally difficult to read. Mrs. Parks was not the first person to remain seated on a segregated bus. Viola White did it in 1944 and police retaliated by raping her teenaged daughter. Veteran Hilliard Brooks did it in 1950 and police shot and killed him. There are so many infuriating and/or heartbreaking anecdotes in the book. But that’s what makes it so important. Versions of these same stories play out in national headlines almost daily. When will we as a society do better?

The book ends with a call to continue the fight. Even as President Obama unveiled a new statue of Mrs. Parks in the Capitol building in 2013, the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in a voting rights case that ultimately led to weaker voter protections in the country. We must be vigilant, we must be outspoken, and we must vote.

I began reading this book on my Kindle Paperwhite but switched to a paperback version when I realized the author had included so many photos and images of documents. They were impossible to see clearly on my Kindle. I recommend finding a physical copy or maybe reading on a tablet if you’re a reader who likes to pore over images.

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks isn’t just an in-depth biography of this brave woman’s life. It’s a history of the civil rights movement and an indictment of the current state of race relations across all of America. Mrs. Parks did her part. What can we each do to carry on her legacy?

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  1. I came across a similar quote and a great history of all the organizing that went into Rosa Park’s “spontaneous” refusal to move in A More Beautiful and Terrible History. It’s a little academic in tone, but really fascinating and helpful as an organizer today.

  2. This is such important history for people to read about. Our past has many shameful moments and the more we know and understand, the better we can be today.

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