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Fables of the Reconstruction

By Max Dunbar.

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis, Beacon 2014

Jeanne Theoharis opens her biography with a funeral. At her death Rosa Parks was recognised in a way unimaginable in the year of her bus stand in Alabama. After dying in Detroit, at the age of ninety-two, her body was exhibited in Montgomery, Alabama, for a public viewing and service attended, among others, by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice: her casket was placed in state at the Capital rotunda, where crowds of 40,000 watched wreath laying and tributes by President George W Bush and various notables. A later commemoration at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple attracted more tributes, from former President Bill Clinton, then presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Aretha Franklin, hundreds of others of the great and good and thousands of the American public. Statues and postage stamps were commissioned in Parks’s honour: flags flown at half mast.

‘Look how far we’ve come,’ Theoharis declared, at a lecture at the University of Leeds, sounding almost Rothian in her clarity and intelligence and cognizance of the politics behind all pageantries: ‘Look how great we are. The ritual of national redemption.’ Theoharis describes the transporting of Parks’s body — flown from Detroit to Montgomery, then up to DC (doing a circle around Montgomery while the pilot sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ on the loudspeaker) laid in the Capitol, then off to the Metropolitan Episcopal for a public viewing, back to Detroit for the Temple service, then finally laid to rest at the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery: what an exhausting commute for someone so recently deceased! — in almost macabre detail, but it was ‘necessary for these public rites, a sort of public communion where Americans would visit her coffin and be sanctified… the public spectacle provided an opportunity for the nation to lay to rest a national heroine and its own history of racism.’ The monster had been slain. We were all saved.

People respond to stories. The anecdote you hear in the pub or office will always strike a chord about the way the world works even if there are reams of statistics that prove otherwise. The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks is about the way myths coalesce and harden around individuals. Theoharis was astounded, on beginning her biography, of how few serious scholarly works about Parks were extant. People learned about her in elementary school. She was ‘the bus lady’; the ‘Christian seamstress’; ‘Sister Rosa’; the ‘small, quiet woman’ (Barack Obama) ‘quiet… humble’ (BBC) ‘a natural maternal figure (Douglas Brinkley) – a ‘bona fide coloured lady’ as The Wire’s Slim Charles might have said.

Mrs Parks had something going for her. She was forty-two when she made her stand, married, religious, from a low income background but middle class in deportment — Parks had a relatively high status job in a large clothes store. She was from that constituency so beloved of politicians, the ‘respectable working class’. Later, in 1994, when in her eighties, she was mugged and beaten up by a young black man, the crime was used to contrast Parks’s respectable generation of hard working blacks with the gangbangers and hip-hoppers of the modern ghetto. ‘With the violence and degradation into which so many of our people have fallen,’ wailed NYT columnist Bob Herbert, ‘we have disgraced the legacy of Rosa Parks.’

Theoharis is particularly good on the lethal pedantry of segregation. What were the Montgomery buses like, in the 1950s? Few black people had cars, and the majority of blacks rode the bus. Yet the first ten seats were always reserved for whites, so on crowded routes, black people would stand next to a row of empty chairs. Black people must also board through the back door so whites need not risk contamination by passing them. Black nursemaids or nannies were sometimes allowed to sit in the white seats if they were accompanied by white children in their care. All this was accompanied by a stream of insults from bus drivers — ‘Go on round the back door, nigger,’ ‘Give up that seat, boy’ are the more polite instructions remembered by Dr King. The atmosphere of squalid and fearful deference is almost unimaginable to us now, but people accepted it. The majority shuffled their feet, or chided Parks, when she refused to move. And the bus was a microcosm. Everything from shops to hospitals was segregated in this way. Black people seen as ‘uppity’ could be fired from their jobs, incarcerated or executed on false charges, or targeted by white militias.

The Parks myth was dependent upon the idea of a spontaneous protest — the tired seamstress, after a long day at work, making a protest out of a natural transcendence to a morality beyond the age. Theoharis blows this story out of the water, chronicling Parks’s long history of civil rights activism. She was respectable, and a Christian, but it was not despite but because of this respectability that she raged against the apparatus of white supremacy in America. Her sense of common humanity fed her fury. Parks was not against violence where it was justified. If you were hit, it was okay to hit back. Her hero was Malcolm X, not Martin Luther King. Theoharis relates how, as a child, Parks fought bullies in the schoolyard. Her grandfather was a former slave and natural rebel who would sit up at night with his shotgun in case the Klan came. The young Rosa would sit up and watch with him. ‘I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer,’ she said.

Her bus stand was premeditated and she knew the risks. Black people had refused to give up their seats before. In a subchapter called ‘A History of Bus Resistance’ Theoharis lists dozens of people who refused to back down, and were beaten up, shot, arrested, fined for their bravery. In 1955 a fifteen-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin, refused to move for a white neighbour. ‘We had been studying the Constitution in Miss Nesbitt’s class,’ she said. ‘I knew I had rights.’ She was furious about the treatment of her classmate Jeremiah Reeves — a sixteen-year-old boy sentenced to death for an alleged rape of a white woman. Colvin was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace, breach of segregation law, and assault on police. Parks campaigned for her defence. Claudette Colvin was ultimately a brave and good person, but her name is more or less forgotten now, and at the time, Theoharis explains, she was ‘seen as ‘feisty,’ ‘uncontrollable,’ ‘profane,’ and ’emotional’ by some community leaders who worried that she was too young and not of the right social standing to organise a campaign around.’

Parks was acutely aware that she had become a symbol. ‘It is fine to be a heroine,’ Parks said, ‘but the price is high.’ Theoharis writes: ‘the danger of symbols is that they get fixed in time. They require honor but not necessarily assistance, so the fact that the figure was a real woman with a real family who was suffering became difficult to see.’ There are inspiring moments in Theoharis’s book. Montgomery blacks boycotted the bus service: empty buses rattled by while black people carpooled, rode bicycles or walked everywhere. There is a great anecdote where a middle aged woman, Beatrice Charles, is threatened with dismissal by her employer due to her support of the boycott. ‘Well, Mrs,’ Charles replied, ‘I just won’t come at all and I sure won’t starve. You see my husband is a railroad man, my son and daughter have good jobs and my daddy keep plenty of food on his farm. So I’m not worried at all, ’cause I was eating before I started working for you.’ The employer backed down.

But, Theoharis makes clear, Parks’s life after the bus was one long struggle. She was fired from her job, and targeted with intimidation and death threats by white racists. Her husband struggled to cope and hit the bottle. Parks was revered in civil rights circle, but the NAACP never found her a permanent job. She relied on piecework and charitable donations. The Parkses moved to Detroit, thinking they would be safer in the progressive North. Detroit turned out to be ‘the promised land that wasn’t’ – full of the same entrenched power structures and racist cops as the backward South.
The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks is not an easy read. Like Parks herself, Theoharis asks hard questions, and tells it like it is. Only a fool would argue nothing gets better, but two months before Bush laid a wreath at Parks’s casket, his government sat on its hands as the overwhelmingly black neighbourhoods of New Orleans were blasted by seawall. Theoharis’s book is a series of challenges: to people who believe racism a thing of the past, to Northern Americans who cast the civil rights struggles as good Northern liberals versus bad redneck wingnuts. It is also a challenge aimed at British people who look down on Americans for their sordid little race problem, while downplaying or ignoring the vast history, and active presence, of bigotry and small mindedness in this country.

Above all, this story of Rosa Parks is a testament to the power of history. As the great Southern novelist William Faulkner said: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 17th, 2015.