It was in Montgomery, Alabama, that Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger as the rules of segregation demanded of her at the time. She was arrested, in a move that initiated a 381-day bus boycott, which many see as the formal beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
Parks’ past actions are justifiably getting a lot of attention, given this momentous anniversary. She was recently praised by President Barack Obama for her “grace, dignity, and refusal to tolerate injustice.” And Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made her way to the church where Martin Luther King Jr. was a pastor to give a speech. All this public praise confirms that America’s image of Parks is as a respectable, peaceful woman, who was simply looking to sit down at the end of a long day.
But not everyone is happy with the way we remember the now-deceased activist. Jeanne Theoharis is a professor who actually wrote a book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, to clear up some common misconceptions about her life. Most importantly, Theoharis says that Parks was not meek, citing several examples of her standing up and rebelling against the strict segregation and discrimination of her age. For instance, Parks took on dangerous organizing tasks with her husband in response to lynchings and other racist happenings.
Teacher and poet Clint Smith updates our narrative about opportunity in America.
According to Theoharis, the events that happened 60 years ago were also not the first of Parks’ bus protests. She had already been kicked off of buses several times before for not following the rule that she should give up her seat to a white person when asked. It would seem that Parks was actually quite a seasoned dissenter by the time December 1, 1955, rolled around.
Given that Parks was a bit more of a fiery activist than we thought, would she be happy about the state of race relations in America today? The answer is probably a little bit of both yes and no. We’ve clearly moved past some of the most overt forms of racial discrimination from our past, like the laws that mandated where Parks was allowed to sit on a bus or what water fountain she could drink out of in a government building.
Yet at the same time, we are in the midst of national debate and upheaval surrounding the deaths of black people at the hands of police officers. The recent resignation of Chicago’s police chief in response to protests of the handling of teenager Laquan McDonald is just one example of many.
Whatever her thoughts might be, my guess is that if Parks were still around today she wouldn’t be hanging out on the sidelines. She’d be out there marching for continued progress toward equality, calling for us all to get up and get involved.