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02/04/2013 11:59 am ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

On Rosa Parks' 100th Birthday, Recalling a Rebellious Life Before and After the Montgomery Bus

Born on Feb. 4, 1913, today would have been Rosa Parks' 100th birthday. On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system that would help spark the civil rights movement.

In an extended 45-minute interview on Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman discusses Rosa Parks' life with historian Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new book, "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks."

Often described as a tired seamstress, no troublemaker, Parks was in fact a dedicated civil rights activist involved with the movement long before and after her historic action on the Montgomery bus. "Here we have, in many ways, one of the most famous Americans of the 20th century, and yet treated just like a sort of children's book hero," Theoharis says. "We diminish her legacy by making it about a single day, a single act, as opposed to the rich and lifelong history of resistance that was actually who Rosa Parks was."

Democracy Now!
also airs audio of Rosa Parks in her own words. In the midst of the boycott in April of 1956, Parks spoke to Pacifica Radio about the action she took.

"This is a story of a life history of activism, of a life history, as she would put it, of being rebellious, right, that starts decades before her historic bus stand and continues decades after. And so, very much what the story I'm trying to tell in this book is the story of that scope," Theoharis says. "It begins: Her grandfather was a supporter of Marcus Garvey, and so that is really where she gets her start, is with her family, her mother and grandparents. And they sort of inculcate her in a sense of pride and a sense that you demand and expect respect from people around you. And so, it is that spirit that she then brings into the world. She marries Raymond Parks, the first real activist she ever met."

Theoharis continues: "In 1943, she sees a picture of a classmate attending a local NAACP meeting, and she realizes that women can be part of the NAACP, and so she decides to go and attend a Montgomery NAACP meeting. And she's the only woman there. And they're having branch elections, and so she is elected branch secretary at her very first meeting in 1943. And that begins a decade of activism, right, before her bus arrest, where she is working with the NAACP. ... And so, for this decade before her stand, she is doing this very dangerous work. You know, I think we say NAACP today, and it sounds not so dangerous. But to be a NAACP activist in the '40s, doing what she's doing--she's traveling the state, she's taking testimony of people, she's trying to get them to sign affidavits--that is extremely courageous work."

Explaining the context of Parks' now-famous bus protest, Theoharis describes: "There is a longer history of bus resistance in Montgomery. There had been numerous cases sort of in the decade after World War II, before her arrest in '55, of people getting arrested on the bus. And she's very familiar with many of these cases, so she knows what can happen. A neighbor of hers in 1950 is arrested, thrown off the bus and killed by police. The young Claudette Colvin, in March of 1955, is manhandled by police when she is arrested for her refusal to move. Parks herself had made various stands on the bus. She abhorred the practice that many bus drivers insisted on, where black people would have to pay in the front, get off the bus, and reboard in the back of the bus. And she refused to do that. She had been kicked off the bus by this very same bus driver a decade earlier for refusing to do that. She had had trouble with other bus drivers. She describes some bus driver passing her by because he didn't--you know, he felt like she was a trouble--you know, she raised trouble. So she had this sort of history of bus resistance. There is this larger history of bus resistance in Montgomery. And then we get to December 1st, 1955."

Visit Democracy Now! to read the complete transcript.

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