MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
An important anniversary is coming up Tuesday. It is the 60th anniversary of the action that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott. It's Rosa Parks' decision to refuse to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. And for many Americans, that makes Rosa Parks the civil rights icon they love to love. The unassuming seamstress who supposedly just got tired one day and unwittingly launched the modern civil rights movement. But as author Jeanne Theoharis tells us in her deeply-researched biography, Rosa Parks is a much more complex character than the one portrayed on all those black history month calendars. And in fact, she was a committed and courageous activist who may have been preparing for her big moment on the bus for much of her life. Theoharis is the author of the book "The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks." She teaches political science at Brooklyn College. And I asked her what she saw as the biggest misconception about Parks.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I think we reduce her to that one day on the bus. And in fact, she is a lifelong freedom fighter, and we see that beginning decades before her stand and continuing for decades after.
MARTIN: What were some of the ways that she expressed that? What were some of the things that she did?
THEOHARIS: Well, I think criminal justice is one of the key through lines through her life. And in many ways, her adult political life begins when she meets who describes as the first real activist I ever met, and that is Raymond Parks. She falls in love, they get married. And Raymond is working on the Scottsboro case - nine young men arrested riding the rails. And then their charge turns to rape, and they're quickly convicted and they are sentenced to death. And Rosa Parks will join him in that work, so that's in the early 1930s. She continues doing that work in the 1940s. She is working on issues of voter registration. She's working on issues of desegregation, and so all of that will kind of come together that December evening on the bus.
MARTIN: She was a very dedicated anti-rape activist.
MARTIN: Could you just talk a little bit about that?
THEOHARIS: So Rosa Parks, like many black women, was doing domestic work in her late teens. She's working for a white couple, and a white neighbor of theirs is let in the house, gets a drink, puts his hand on her waist. She gets terrified. He's big, he's burly, she's small, but she resolves to resist. She basically tells him you can rape my dead body. And we'll see the same kind of resolve in the 1940s. Then she will help to sort of try to bring cases where other black women have been victims of sexual violence or rape. And that when she is taken to jail after she's arrested on the bus, there is a woman in jail. That women had been attacked by her boyfriend and her family didn't know where she was. But Rosa Parks will smuggle the number of that woman's brother out of jail that night. So she's even thinking about these broader criminal justice issues when she's in jail that night.
MARTIN: Wow, that's fascinating. One of the other things that you point out in the book though is just how hard it was to maintain that boycott and just how much harassment that Rosa Parks and her husband Raymond endured over the course of that year.
THEOHARIS: Yes. She loses her job, her husband loses his job. They never find steady work in Montgomery ever again. It takes 11 years for the Parks to post an annual income equal to what they're making in 1955.
MARTIN: Why do you think it is that these details are not better known? As I mentioned, our sort of understanding of this episode, it's like it was a spontaneous act. And in all of what people had to go through somehow isn't part of our knowledge of this. Why do you think that is?
THEOHARIS: Well, I think partly there's a feel-good story, right? It was bad, but then people organized and look how far we've come, look how good we are. If we want to think about the way it portrays Rosa Parks, it makes her meek and we miss the fierceness of Rosa Parks, we miss the perseverance, we miss who she was and what it took.
MARTIN: Jeanne Theoharis is the author of "The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks." She's also a distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Professor Theoharis, thank you so much for speaking with us.
THEOHARIS: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: And I will be in Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday to mark the 60th anniversary of Montgomery bus boycott at an event in cooperation with member station WVAS. We'll talk about Rosa Parks, the history of the civil rights movement and its future. You'll be able to listen online from npr.org. And you can join the conversation on Twitter. Use the hashtag #busboycott60.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.