Happy birthday, Rosa Parks! If the "mother of the freedom movement" were still alive, she'd be 100 years old today. (She passed away in 2005.) Growing up, I remember hearing the story of the exhausted seamstress from Alabama who one day decided she'd had enough and could no longer stand giving up her seat to white passengers. Her stand inspired the Montgomery bus strike, a major victor of the civil rights movement.
It wasn't until recently that I learned I had Rosa Park's story all wrong.
This wasn't just a random action of an individual. And Rosa Parks wasn't just a tired worker. She was much, much more than that -- and her real story is so much more inspiring.
Historian Jeanne Theoharis is telling the real story of this American hero in her new biography, The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks. Parks was a civil rights activist long before she took that famous stand on the bus. She grew up watching her grandfather defend the family farm against the Klu Klux Klan. She married an activist and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and became an active member herself. She served as a youth leader and then as secretary to the NAACP president.
Parks had been doing courageous political work for at least a decade, documenting incidents of harassment against black people. It wasn't even her first time refusing to give up her seat on the bus! She had taken that stand a couple other times and had even been arrested for it. Other activists were also taking the same stand -- one man was killed for it.
Deferring to white passengers wasn't the law; it was just a custom. Rosa was well within her rights to refuse -- not just ethically but also legally. This wasn't about changing laws, it was about changing people's hearts and minds. It was about changing America.
Rosa Parks continued her work as an activist through the rest of her life. She received countless death threats and was called a communist. She admired both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Does all of this matter? I think so. I think it makes Rosa's story richer and more exciting. She acted alone on that day, but she was acting as part of a movement. When she stood up against that bus driver, she stood on the shoulders of her fellow freedom fighters. She wasn't just fighting for herself. She was fighting for her brothers and sisters.
Did you know Rosa Parks was a lifelong activist?
Image via USPS