On Her 100th Birthday, Rosa Parks’ Legacy Is Reexamined (Participation)

By Arturo R. García

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That segment, originally aired in 2010, holds to what MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry calls “civil rights lore” regarding Rosa Parks.

But last week, just days before what would have been her 100th birthday–today, to be exact–a new book was released that has gained acclaim for painting a more vivid picture of her life, on top of the story of her refusing to yield that seat on that bus in Montgomery, AL.

The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks details not only her involvement with the NAACP, which actually began 12 years before her fateful encounter (it also happens, Harris-Perry points out, that Parks was thrown off of that bus 10 years before her famous moment of disobedience.)

As USA Today reported over the weekend, Parks herself refuted that story in her autobiography, My Story (1992):

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day … No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

But, perhaps on account of the milestone number, historian Jeanne Theoharis’ new account of Parks life has gained some traction, including, as seen in this excerpt, the scene immediately following her refusal to move out of her seat:

Blake left the bus to call the supervisor from the pay phone on the corner, “I was under orders to call them first.” His supervisor told Blake to put the woman off the bus. “Did you warn her Jim?” I said “I warned her.” And he said … ”Well, then, Jim you do it. You got to exercise your power and put her off, hear? And that’s just what I did.” Meanwhile, the tension on the bus grew. Most on the bus, black and white, feared what might happen. They did not want trouble, and many wished she would just stand up. Parks heard grumblings of conversation though she could not make out what they were saying. Some black people exited the bus. “I supposed they didn’t want to be inconvenienced while I was being arrested,” she surmised.

Police officers F.B. Day and D.W. Mixon boarded the bus. The police were “the front line of the white segregationist army,” according to white Montgomery minister Robert Graetz. While the Klan had for many decades been the central force to keep black people in line, “that kind of illegal activities was no longer tolerated, at least officially. Nowadays, the task of controlling Negroes was entrusted to the legally constituted constabulary.” Montgomery whites saw themselves as sophisticated. They did not have to resort to common vigilantism — at least publicly — and had entrusted the police to maintain a severely segregated and unequal city. The law was up to the task.

Blake explained to the officers that he had asked for the seats and the “other three stood, but that one wouldn’t.” This phrasing angered Parks. “He didn’t say three what, men or women, didn’t refer to anything, just, ‘that one,’ pointing to me, ‘wouldn’t stand up.’” Blake addressed nothing further to Parks after he had called in the officers.

Harris-Perry and Theoharis discussed the work yesterday on her show, and you can watch the interview here. (There’s also a transcript available bu clicking on the clip.)


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