In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rosa Parks

  • Introduction
  • Key Texts on Rosa Parks
  • Key Primary Sources: Rosa Parks’s Papers
  • Other Parks Writings
  • Archival Collections
  • Secondary Sources on Rosa Parks
  • Notable Interviews of Rosa Parks
  • Autobiographies and Biographies of Rosa Parks’s Montgomery Comrades
  • Secondary Sources on Black Politics in Alabama (1940s and 1950s)
  • Secondary Sources on the History of Black Resistance on Transportation
  • Autobiographies and Biographies of Rosa Parks’s Comrades
  • Key Accounts and Oral Histories of Black Detroit
  • Key Texts on Racial Inequality and the Black Freedom Struggle in Detroit
  • Rosa Parks’ Quilting
  • Journalism on Rosa Parks
  • Journalistic Accounts of Rosa Parks’s Poverty and Hardships (1955–1965)
  • Rosa Parks and the 1963 March on Washington
  • Analyses of Women and Gender issues within the Civil Rights Movement (2010)
  • Politics and Memory of the Civil Rights Movement

African American Studies Rosa Parks
by
Jeanne Theoharis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0101

Introduction

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and was arrested. Her courageous action galvanized a yearlong community boycott and helped usher in a new chapter of the Black freedom struggle. Her bus stand was part of a lifetime of courage and political activism. Born in Tuskegee and raised in Pine Level, Alabama, Rosa Parks spent nearly twenty-five years of her adult life in Montgomery, tilling the ground for a broader movement for racial justice to flower. Joining a small cadre of activists in transforming Montgomery’s NAACP into a more activist chapter, she served as secretary of the branch for most of the next twelve years and in the late 1940s was elected secretary for the Alabama state conference of the NAACP. Through the organization, she pressed for voter registration, documented white brutality and sexual violence, pushed for desegregation, and fought criminal injustice in the decade after WWII. Coming home from work that December evening, she was asked by bus driver James Blake to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus. “Pushed as far as she could stand to be pushed” she refused and was arrested. That act of courage galvanized a year-long community boycott of Montgomery’s segregated buses, catapulting a young Martin Luther King Jr. to national attention and leading to the Supreme Court’s decision ordering the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses. Parks’s act and the bus boycott it produced is often seen as the opening act of the modern civil rights movement which rippled across the South and culminated in the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. Facing continued death threats and unable to find work, the Parks family was forced to leave Montgomery eight months after the boycott’s end for Detroit, where her brother and cousins lived. While the public signs of segregation were thankfully gone, she didn’t find “too much difference” between the extent of housing and school segregation they encountered in the North from that of the South. And so she spent the second half of her life fighting the racism of the North. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, when she died in October 2005 she became the first civilian, the first woman, and the second African American to lie in honor in the US Capitol. In February 2013, a statue in her honor was installed in the US Capitol’s Statuary Hall, the first full statue of a Black person to be put there. Parks is arguably one of the most known and regarded Americans of the 20th century. Yet the story that is regularly told and taught is clouded with myth and misinformation—wrongly asserting that Parks was tired, old, meek, middle-class, and/or an accidental actor. On top of these distortions of her bus stand, most people would be hard-pressed to go beyond that courageous moment on the bus to anything else about her life. Corresponding to this tendency, although children’s and young adult books on her abound, scholarly work focused on Parks is surprisingly thin. Scholars of civil rights history, postwar American history North and South, and American politics have largely not paid in-depth attention to Parks in order to investigate other activists in Montgomery, earlier struggles than the bus boycott, and other movements outside of Montgomery. While this provides needed and important dimensions to our knowledge of the period, it leaves our knowledge of Parks’ history incomplete—until Jeanne Theoharis’s ground-breaking biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Parks herself wrote an autobiography aimed at young adults that serves as one of the best accounts of her bus stand, the activism that lead up to it, and the boycott that ensued.

Key Texts on Rosa Parks

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (Boston: Beacon Press) by Jeanne Theoharis, first published in 2013 with a second edition in 2015 (including a new introduction surveying the recently opened papers at the Library of Congress) is the first footnoted full-length biography of Parks. A political biography, it traces her political life from Pine Level, Alabama where she grew up with her mother and grandparents, who nurtured her sense of self-respect and political spirit. It follows her to Montgomery where she marries politically active barber Raymond Parks; works on voting registration, desegregation, and criminal justice for a decade with the Montgomery NAACP; and makes her bus stand which leads to a yearlong bus boycott. The second half of the book follows her north; eight months after the boycott’s successful end, still facing death threats and unable to find work, the Parks family had to leave Montgomery and moved to Detroit where her brother and extended family lived. The book provides a rare detailing of her life in the North, the “promised land that wasn’t” as she termed it, where she challenges the racism of her new hometown and across the nation in and alongside a growing Black Power movement, through the 1980s and 1990s and up to her death in October 2005. Because it is a political biography, it does not cover in depth her family relationships and friendships, her faith, or her psychology but focuses on the extent of her activism and political ideas across the 20th century. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks also came out in a young adult version in 2021.

  • Parks, Rosa, and James Haskins. Rosa Parks; My Story. New York: Dial Books, 1992.

    This autobiography geared toward young adults provides an unparalleled sense of Rosa Parks’s voice and account of her life leading up to and during the boycott. Some of the transcripts of interviews Haskins did with Parks to prepare the book and one tape can be found in James Haskins’s papers on file at Boston University. Haskins came from Alabama and he and Parks had many political associates in common so the interviews focus overwhelmingly on her life in Alabama and give short shrift to the second half of her life in Detroit, which is then reflected in the book. The book skims her life and activism in Detroit and doesn’t mention the decade of suffering that follows her bus stand.

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