The way we talk about her covers up uncomfortable truths about American racism.
By Jeanne Theoharis
Dr. Theoharis is a professor of political science and the author of eleven books on the civil rights and Black Power movements including “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” and “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks Young Readers’ Edition,” co-adapted with Brandy Colbert.
- Feb. 1, 2021 The New York Times (Black History Month)
Mug shot No. 7053 is one of the most iconic images of Rosa Parks. But the photo, often seen in museums and textbooks and on T-shirts and websites, isn’t what it seems. Though it’s regularly misattributed as such, it is not the mug shot taken at the time of Mrs. Parks’s arrest in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955, after she famously refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger. It was, in fact, taken when she was arrested in February 1956 after she and 88 other “boycott leaders” were indicted by the city in an attempt to end the boycott. The confusion around the image reveals Americans’ overconfidence in what we think we know about Mrs. Parks and about the civil rights movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks dominate the Civil Rights Movement chapters of elementary and high school textbooks and Black History Month celebrations. And yet much of what people learn about Mrs. Parks is narrow, distorted, or just plain wrong. In our collective understanding, she’s trapped in a single moment on a long-ago Montgomery bus, too often cast as meek, tired, quiet and middle class. The boycott is seen as a natural outgrowth of her bus stand. It’s inevitable, respectable and not disruptive.
But that’s not who she was, and it’s not how change actually works. “Over the years, I have been rebelling against second-class citizenship. It didn’t begin when I was arrested,” Mrs. Parks reminded interviewers time and again. Read More