Wednesday afternoon I listened to Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York speak about her book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. I wrote a post and was editing it when I deleted three paragraphs by accident. In my rush to undo my error I undid my ability to recover what I’d deleted. Sometimes things happen that you can’t undo. I was frustrated when it happened, but more of me was tired. Still, remembering that my Lenten commitment is to end my days with a post, I pressed on. My body let me know pretty quickly that there was not going to be any re-write. I protested. My body doubled-down. I fell asleep sitting in my chair, relented when I awoke, and headed to bed.
A day after listening to Theoharis talk about her book, how is it reverberating? What about it is still with me? I know that yesterday, after ninety minutes, I remained engaged. Today I read the kindle sample pages and was happy to see her style is easy to read. I logged in at my local library and found twenty-six copies of her book available. I reserved one. I’d already listened to this interview with Tavis Smiley. I looked for others, and found several. The one I particularly enjoyed, and which you can watch as a video podcast if you like, is her interview with Amy Goodman. I suppose you can say that a compelling life, led to a compelling book, which compelled me to learn more.
What else? One of the fundamental points Theoharis makes is that the story about Rosa Parks that we’ve over-learned, and by that I mean the version that says that on Dec 1, 1955 the reason she broke a segregation law by refusing to give her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man who’d just boarded is she was tired after a long day of work and just wanted to get home. Or that it was an accident, or it happened by chance. Any version of what happened that even faintly hints that way, is myth.
The day she was arrested for not giving up her seat, she’d already been an activist for more than a decade. She knew that in the year prior, three other women were arrested for refusing to give up their seats, and that nothing had changed. That summer she’d spent time at Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in Monteagle, Tennessee. Just five days before she kept her seat she attended a mass meeting hosted by Martin Luther King, Jr. and featuring T. R. M. Howard, a black civil rights leader from Mississippi. Emmett Till’s murder was that summer, and his killers acquitted in their trial. That’s what brought Howard to Montgomery. All of these events, combined with the rest of her life experience is what led to her decision to keep her seat. Her decision is something she’d lived into.
Who are you? What sort of person do you want to become? Are your actions aligned with your values? Like it or not, you’re living into something. People, live into everything.
At the end of her lecture I asked Dr. Theoharis what Rosa Parks might have said about Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the related “Black Lives Matter” campaign. I expected her to flesh out one of the themes in her book, the importance of perseverance, and not giving up. Instead, she said “I think she’d say it was exciting.” I was stunned. Instead of evaluating those events, or talking about her book, Theoharis shared the perspective of a woman who would see the thread that ties the events of the last year, to those she grew up living through, long before she gave up her seat. To my chagrin, I realized that in not seeing it myself, I’d accepted a chunk of the myth that surrounds Rosa Parks. My blindness is such that I could not see the connection between these events, and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. That’s when I understood the obvious; the Civil Rights movement isn’t over. It continues.