Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of celebrated civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Host Melissa Harris-Perry kicked off Black History Month with an illuminating conversation about this influential leader, revealing facts that prove her life was much more than one famous incident on a bus. Joining her for the discussion was Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
Theoharis spoke passionately on the show about the biography. “This is not about one day or one act, it’s about a lifetime of courageous acts,” she said as she described some of the accounts noted in her book.
Although the prominence of Rosa Parks is concentrated on the Montgomery, Alabama bus incident of 1955, her character was also displayed through a combination of several other notable acts over her lifetime. Theoharis explained that for most of her political life, Parks worked diligently to challenge racial inequality in Detroit, Michigan.
In her new home, “the promise land that wasn’t,” Parks discovered that racial injustice and imminent danger was just as pervasive in Detroit as it was in the south. She joined forces with the NAACP in her new northern city to address social wrongs such as police brutality against African-Americans and legal lynching.
For over a decade, Parks worked with the NAACP and drew her inspiration from leaders like Malcolm X. But despite some of the extreme tactics of other activists of her time, Parks was revered for her non-violent approach–just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–to radical change. Harris-Perry was surprised to discover that although Parks was against physical force in her activism, she did carry a gun for self-defense.
Parks’ stance on guns is only one of many details of her life that has been overshadowed by her stunt on the bus in Montgomery. Harris-Perry expressed her frustration that widely, the fascinating story of Rosa Parks has been “reduced to a children’s story” of the “tired seamstress who just didn’t get up.” Theoharis was extremely cognizant of this perception, as it was part of her motivation to write the book. She adamantly promotes through her text that Rosa Parks was much more than her actions one afternoon after work.