The new documentary “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” gives a comprehensive look at the legacy of the woman known for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in 1955, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Beyond helping to inspire the Montgomery bus boycott that ended Alabama’s bus segregation law, Parks was also a lifelong supporter of the Black Power movement and organized in campaigns to seek justice for wrongfully imprisoned Black people, political prisoners, and Black rape survivors like Recy Taylor, whose case Parks investigated for the NAACP in 1944. We speak to the film’s co-director, Yoruba Richen, who says Parks paid a price for her activism, including having to leave Montgomery for Detroit to escape public backlash. “We often think of these civil rights leaders as heroic, and [they] make these stances, and then everything’s fine. But the risk and the danger that they face is often not explored,” says Richen. We also speak with Jeanne Theoharis, author of the best-selling biography “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” on which the documentary is based, and a consulting producer. “She shows up for everything,” Theoharis says of Parks’s activism. “She is looking for all different kinds of strategies to challenge the kind of racial injustice in this country, the social injustice, poverty, war.”
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AMY GOODMAN: It was December 1st, 1955, that Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, thus launching the modern-day civil rights movement. When she died in 2005, one network described her as a tired seamstress; they said she was no troublemaker. But the media got it wrong. Rosa Parks was a first-class troublemaker.
Today we spend the hour looking at this often-ignored side of her remarkable life. It’s told in the new Peacock documentary, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.
ROSA PARKS: I felt that I had a message, but people did not choose to listen to what I was saying.
UNIDENTIFIED: We all understand that she sat down on a bus.
ROSA PARKS: The policeman, he said, “Why don’t you stand up?” I said, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.”
UNIDENTIFIED: The narrow narrative of her just on one day did something …
FRANCIS GOURRIER: Couldn’t be further from the truth.
HERB BOYD: Often the man is out front, and you never hear about the wife. Yet the reverse is true.
UNIDENTIFIED: She was considered a threat.
UNIDENTIFIED: Espousing radical views.
MARY FRANCES BERRY: If they could see her talking about the Republic of New Afrika — they were out there with the Panthers — then they would understand the real Rosa Parks. But they might have been just a little frightened.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: She has been an activist for over three decades.
BRYAN STEVENSON: For Ms. Parks, it was especially dangerous.
BREE NEWSOME BASS: Fighting on issues that are still very much at the forefront.
JOE MADISON: She never gave up. She lit the torch, ’til the next generation.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, set to air on Peacock Wednesday, October 19th.
Well, on Friday, I spoke with two people involved in the film. Yoruba Richen is the film’s co-director, acclaimed filmmaker, former Democracy Now! producer, founding director of the documentary program at the Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. I also spoke with Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, author of the award-winning biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, on which the new documentary is based.
I began by asking Yoruba Richen why she chose to take on this project and why she felt it was important to tell the story of Rosa Parks over a half a century later.
YORUBA RICHEN: I was contacted by my co-director, Johanna Hamilton, who had connected with Jeanne about the book, and was quite astonished that a full-length documentary film had not been made about Rosa Parks. And she contacted — she read the book, contacted me and asked if I wanted to work with — told me to read the book and asked if I wanted to work with her on getting a documentary — on making a documentary.
And as I was reading the book, again and again I was astonished to learn so much more about Mrs. Parks’s life and her work and her activism. And I just thought it was a story that hadn’t been told on so many different — you know, so many different levels, in terms of the work that — the activism and work that Mrs. Parks did before the bus boycott, her relationship with her husband and how he brought her into activism, and all of her work post the boycott, how she got to Detroit and, you know, the work that she did in Detroit.
And I have to say, Amy, I don’t know if you remember, but we were in D.C. at the memorial for her. I was working for Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: You know —
YORUBA RICHEN: And that’s — you know, we were at her beautiful memorial.
AMY GOODMAN: It was astounding. And I remember, of course, when we hopped on the train. I was watching CNN in the newsroom here at Democracy Now!, and it said Rosa Parks had died, then there was going to be this memorial – right? — first woman and second African American to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, that she was an amazing woman because she was really just a tired seamstress, she was no troublemaker, they said. Well, of course, that’s exactly what she was, and it’s exactly what you document in this amazing film, and, Jeanne Theoharis, that you wrote about in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. We hopped on that train, went down to tell that story. I mean, thousands came out for it, and this wasn’t even the big funeral in Detroit. This was just —
YORUBA RICHEN: Right. This wasn’t, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Right? To honor her.
YORUBA RICHEN: This was — It was incredible to see the —
AMY GOODMAN: Cicely Tyson and Oprah Winfrey were inside.
YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, so that takes us to Jeanne. Jeanne, you’re an academic. You’re a professor. Talk about your investigations of the civil rights movement and then realizing what we didn’t know about a woman who perhaps everyone knows her name, Rosa Parks.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. And I think you and Yoruba starting with that memorial, that funeral, is acutally where I started, because I was both transfixed by it — it’s an incredible, really unprecedented honor for a woman, activist, for a civil rights activist, and yet, as both of you are noting, she gets smaller and smaller in it. She’s talked about as accidental. She’s talked about as, right, not a troublemaker. She’s incessantly referred to as quiet, not angry, humble, quiet.
And so, I do a talk a few months later on how we memorialize the civil rights movement, because, to me, we couldn’t separate her funeral and this outpouring of Congress, this kind of stampede of congressional leaders wanting to honor Mrs. Parks, from what happened two months earlier, which was the travesty of Hurricane Katrina and the federal negligence after the storm — during, before and after the storm. And so, this, to me, was inseparable. So I do a couple of talks, and a friend says, “Will you turn that talk into a chapter for this book I’m doing?”
So, I’m thinking to myself, “Sure. But now I need to tell a little fuller story about Mrs. Parks than I knew. There’s got to be a good biography.” And I look, and there’s no serious biography of Rosa Parks. And until my book comes out in 2013, there is no serious footnote or biography of her.
But when I start to look — and I’m coming to this as a scholar of the civil rights movement outside of the South. And one of the first things that I start to realize is how huge her political life is after the boycott. They’re forced to leave Montgomery in '57, eight months after the boycott is successful, and move to Detroit to what she describes as the “Northern promised land that wasn't.” And so, she’ll spend the next 40 years fighting the racism, the school segregation, the housing segregation, the job discrimination, the police brutality of the North.
And that whole second half, even those of us who knew she wasn’t just a simple seamstress had really missed that second half, missed all of her connections to Black Power, missed all of her connections to the antiwar movement in the '60s, to the anti-apartheid movement. And so there was just this much bigger story to tell. And I realized it's not just an article, it’s a book.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we move forward in her life, from sitting down on the bus, December 1st, 1955, let’s go back. In this clip from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, she describes how her grandfather’s response to racism shaped her as a child. We hear actress LisaGay Hamilton reading from Rosa Parks’s letters.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] By the time I was 6, I was old enough to realize that we were actually not free. The Ku Klux Klan was riding through the Black community, burning churches, killing people. I later learned that it was because African American soldiers were returning from World War I and acting as if they deserved equal rights because they had served their country. At one point, the violence was so bad that my grandfather kept his gun close by at all times. My grandfather was going to defend his home, whatever happened. I wanted to see him shoot that gun.
AMY GOODMAN: And in this clip from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, we learn about her husband, Raymond Parks, known as Parks.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] Raymond Parks was the first real activist I ever met. He was a longtime member of the NAACP.ROSA PARKS: He was the first man I had met since the death of my grandfather that was not ready to accept what we call bying-and-scraping and yes-yesing.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] He was in his late twenties and working as a barber in the Black barber shop in downtown Montgomery.FRANCIS GOURRIER: A mutual friend introduces Rosa and Raymond Parks to one another. Rosa is initially not interested.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] I thought he was too white. I had an aversion to white men, with the exception of my grandfather. And Raymond Parks is very light-skinned.FRANCIS GOURRIER: And her experience with light-skinned Black men is that they’re usually politically timid. Couldn’t be further from the truth — right? — about Raymond.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] Parks — everyone called him Parks — would tell me about his problems growing up being very fair-complected.FRANCIS GOURRIER: He’s also the owner of a red Nash.ROSA PARKS: He had a car, a little red Nash with a rumble seat. That was something very special, for a young man to own his own car, especially when he wasn’t driving for any of the white folks.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of The Rebellious Life of [Mrs.] Rosa Parks. Yoruba Richen, this rich history, I mean, the story of Rosa Parks tells us the story of the 20th century, from the grandfather in World War I to her husband, Raymond Parks, and their partnership. Tell us about her family and how that shaped her and what it tells us about the history of this country.
YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, I mean, it’s really remarkable to think that, you know, some of her earliest memories are sitting with her grandfather watching the Ku Klux Klan try to intimidate and terrorize their house, and her grandfather defending with a gun, defending his family. You know, I think that also tells us so much about the role of self-defense in our struggle, not only our freedom struggle but our struggle to stay alive in this country, and that self-defense was always a part of our strategy for fighting for our rights and for our body, bodily integrity. And she really epitomizes that, and you see that throughout her life.
And also, her grandfathers — her grandfathers, you know, both descendants of her family being descendants of slaves. Her mother’s value on education, being sent to Miss White’s School, where she learned — you know, flourished as a reader and a lover of history. This was a really intelligent woman, who — you know, she says that if she — unfortunately, she wasn’t able to go to college, but she — you know, what she would have liked to do if she was able to. And her family took her in after she had to leave Detroit — after she had to leave Montgomery for Detroit, and protected her. And we really wanted to tell that story, that personal story of who she was, because, again, you know her name, but we don’t know so much. And we certainly didn’t know her personal story.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll speak more with Yoruba Richen and professor Jeanne Theoharis about The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: “I Knew I Could Fly” by Our Native Daughters. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the new Peacock documentary, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, that premieres Wednesday. In a moment, we’ll continue our conversation with the film’s co-director, Yoruba Richen, and professor Jeanne Theoharis. But first, let’s go back to the documentary. In this clip, actress LisaGay Hamilton reads from Rosa Parks’s letters about her investigation in 1944 of what happened to Recy Taylor, Black mother and sharecropper raped by six white men in Alabama.
ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] I remember one case out in Abbeville, Alabama, where my father and his family came from. Mrs. Recy Taylor was on her way home from church when she was kidnapped, forced into a car at gun and knifepoint, stripped of her clothing and raped by six white men on September 3rd, 1944.UNIDENTIFIED: Then put a blindfold on her, took her back and dumped her in the middle of town and said, “If you tell anybody, we’ll kill you.” She went promptly to the sheriff and told him. And they realized that nothing is going to happen to these men.JEANNE THEOHARIS: Rosa Parks hears about this from a white woman they know through Scottsboro organizing. So, Rosa Parks and some of her comrades decide that they should investigate it.UNIDENTIFIED: Rosa Parks was sent to get the testimony. In those times, to go a hundred miles from home — the sheriff is outside, driving by. There he goes again. Well, here he is. I just only can imagine what that must have been like, sitting there and actually having her to tell that story, and Rosa Parks writing down every word.BRYAN STEVENSON: It was incredibly dangerous for a Black woman to report, to detail that they had been the victims of sexual violence. For Ms. Parks, it was especially dangerous going into communities, because she was seen as the problem.UNIDENTIFIED: In collaboration with several other activists, they’d go as far as to take out an ad in the local newspaper in order to let people know what had taken place and to place pressure on law enforcement to do something.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, that clip from The Rebellious Life of [Mrs.] Rosa Parks, the same title as the book on which it’s based, by Jeanne Theoharis. Jeanne, if you can tell us more about how this shaped — the rape of Recy Taylor shaped, and also the reference before that to the Scottsboro Boys, Rosa Parks’s involvement with all of this?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, Rosa Parks gets involved with the Scottsboro case because of Raymond. When she meets Raymond in 1931, as we heard her say in that clip earlier, “He’s the first real activist I ever met.” And what he’s doing in 1931 is organizing around the Scottsboro case, organizing — these are nine young men who were riding the rails. They get arrested. When two white women are found in the train, that charge changes to rape. They’re quickly tried, and all but the youngest, who’s 12, sentenced to death. So, local activists in Alabama, including Raymond Parks, began to organize to try to protect and defend the Scottsboro Boys from being executed, and are doing things like bringing the Scottsboro Boys food in prison. And that’s what Raymond is doing when she meets him. And so, in the beginning, he’s the more public activist, and she’s more behind the scenes. But they’re having meetings in their house. She’ll talk about late-night meetings, guns on the table.
Now, by the 1940s, she’s wanting to be even more active. Her brother is fighting in World War II, like many Black men are, and yet most Black people can’t vote at home. And so she goes to her first Montgomery NAACP meeting in 1943. And she makes it known she wants to register to vote. And a man by the name of E.D. Nixon comes by her apartment to bring her some materials. And there will begin a partnership that’s going to change the face of American history, because E.D. Nixon and Rosa Parks are going to set out to transform Montgomery’s NAACP into a much more activist branch.
And one of the areas that they are working in are what we would now call issues of racism in the criminal legal system. So, there are two kinds of cases: cases where Black people, and often Black man, are being wrongfully accused, and cases where Black people, and particularly Black women, are not protected by the law, and so are being raped or brutalized, and the law does not protect them. And so, Recy Taylor is one such case, but it’s only one of many that she’s investigating, that they’re trying to get justice for. And so, over and over they try, and over and over there is no justice.
And so, I think one thing that we can see in Rosa Parks’s life in this decade — right? — from the mid-'40s ’til the early to mid-'50s, is how many things they’re trying and how hard it is, as she would put, to keep going when all our efforts seemed in vain. And so, she is getting — as we would call it today, you know, she’s getting depressed. She’s getting burned out. And so, this is taking a toll. And yet, I think one of the things that makes Parks so — well, that I admire so much in her is this ability to keep going even when you get discouraged. And that’s what we’ll see her do.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go back to The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, to that moment when she refuses to stand up to give her seat to a white man on the bus. This is her arrest on December 1st, 1955, that launched the Montgomery bus boycott. And in this, you’re featured, Jeanne, the historian Jeanne Theoharis, and Rosa Parks, in her letters, read by actress LisaGay Hamilton, along with Rosa Parks’s voice itself.ROSA PARKS: I had finished my day’s work. And by the time I walked to the bus, there was one vacant seat, which I took. It was on the third stop when this man got on and was left standing.JEANNE THEOHARIS: The front of the bus was reserved for white people. The back of the bus was reserved for Black people. And then there’s the middle. And the middle is kind of a no-man’s land that Black people are entitled to sit there, but, on the whim of the driver, could be asked to move. By the terms of Alabama segregation, all four people in her aisle will have to get up for this one white person to sit down.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] The driver said, “Y’all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.” I could not see how standing up was going to make it light for me. I thought back to the time when I used to sit up all night, and my grandfather would have his gun right by the fireplace.ROSA PARKS: As I sat there and waited to be arrested, didn’t know whether I would be manhandled or hurt physically, or what would happen. The policeman approached me. He said, “Why don’t you stand up?” I said, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” And I asked him, I said, “Why do you push us around?” He said, “I do not know, but the law is the law, and you’re under arrest.”
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest, Jeanne Theoharis, is among those we hear from in this next clip also, about the challenges Rosa Parks faced after the Montgomery bus boycott, along with Rosa Parks herself and historians Mary Frances Berry, Keisha Blain, and Robin D.G. Kelley, as well as others.JEANNE THEOHARIS: All sorts of rumors snake through Montgomery’s white community about Rosa Parks, that she’s an NAACP plant, that she’s a communist plant, she has a car, she’s Mexican, that she’s not even from Montgomery.KEISHA BLAIN: We don’t often want to talk about the reprisals. We don’t want to talk about the consequences and how people make personal sacrifices in order to advance a broader movement.ROSA PARKS: After the incident, I worked five weeks, through the month of December, and was discharged from my job after the first week in January.FRANCIS GOURRIER: The owner of the barbershop on the Air Force Base prohibits all discussion of Rosa Parks and all discussion of the bus boycott. And Raymond resigns in protest, thinking that, you know, if he can’t defend his wife, that he’s being silenced.ROBIN D.G. KELLEY: Dr. King ends up getting the accolades. He is invited everywhere to speak, gets an honorarium, makes money, survives. He’s a hero.MARY FRANCES BERRY: Civil rights groups would have her go out and speak at events and raise money, but it never occurred to anybody that they ought to find some way for them to be supported. I think that part of the way she was treated was because she was a woman, therefore taken advantage.UNIDENTIFIED: And Montgomery is a small town. People had to know that she was no longer working. King — none of them offered her a job. Rosa Parks was also a prideful woman and would not dare ask. And I don’t think she was the kind of woman that would think she was owed.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, that’s a clip from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, that is premiering on Peacock. Yoruba Richen, if you can talk about this key moment? Even this, the moment where she sits down on the bus, refuses to get up for a white passenger, is arrested, not as much is known about it, certainly the background of her remarkable activist history. But what surprised you most about this period?
YORUBA RICHEN: Well, a couple things surprised me the most. First off, really digging into what the boycott was was really interesting for me, and that kind of rich detail around how it actually worked, that there were dispatchers, that it was women — mostly led by women. Hearing from the youth who took part in it was so beautiful, and how they — you know, how the town, the Black community of Montgomery, came together and worked together over a long period of time, almost a year, to make it a success. So, that was really — that was really eye-opening for me to see actually how it worked.
And then, of course, the backlash. You know, I had known that she went to Detroit, lived in Detroit, spent the last — the most part of her life in Detroit, but never knew why she went, why she got there. And that backlash and the threats to her life and to her well-being, you know, she had to get out of there. We often think of these civil rights leaders as, you know, heroic, and make these stances, and then everything’s fine. But the risk and the danger that they face is often not explored. And we really — you know, obviously, that’s a key moment to her life and part of what she sacrificed by taking a stand on that bus.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Theoharis, what was accomplished in terms of the Supreme Court decision that would come a year later? How many people knew that it was Rosa Parks who launched Dr. Martin Luther King, really, into the huge, public national and international arena?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. So, the boycott is 382 days. Like Yoruba said, it is massively well organized. They set up 40 pickup stations. They’re giving 10,000 to 15,000 rides a day. This is an incredible Black-organized, women-led movement.
Two months in, one of the things they learn — so, Rosa Parks is not the first person to get arrested on the bus. There was a trickle of people over the decade before Rosa Parks. We know the name Claudette Colvin. Eight months earlier, Colvin is arrested on the bus. But about a decade earlier, a woman by the name of Viola White is arrested on the bus. She decides to pursue her case. In response, they do two things. The police rape her daughter, and then the state ties up her appeal in state court and never hears it.
So, one of the things Montgomery’s Black community has learned from that is that the state may try to do the same thing with Rosa Parks’s case, because now we’re post-Brown, so there is much more chance that this could get changed on appeal. So, what Fred Gray, Rosa Parks’s 25-year-old lawyer, decides to do is to file a proactive case into federal court, and that case has four women on it: Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, two teenagers; Aurelia Browder is — she’s the title woman; and an older woman by the name of Susie McDonald. It is that case that goes all the way to the Supreme Court and leads to the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses.
And so, it is this multipronged strategy, right? There’s Rosa Parks’s case. There’s this incredibly well-organized boycott. And Rosa Parks, as we saw, is traveling that year to raise money to keep this boycott going. Then they have this federal case. So, it is — there’s many tactics that lead to the desegregation of Montgomery’s buses on December 21st, 1956.
But that does not stop the suffering of the Parks family. And sadly, leaving Montgomery doesn’t stop the suffering. And I think what we see in the Detroit section is that suffering goes on for many, many years.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the Detroit section. In this clip of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, we learn about Rosa’s life after she moved to Detroit. We hear from Detroit civil rights activist Ed Vaughn, from relatives of Rosa Parks, including her niece, Rhea McCauley, great-nephew Lonnie McCauley, and Parks herself, through her letters, read by LisaGay Hamilton.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] I don’t know whether I could have been more effective as a worker for freedom in the South than I am here in Detroit. Really, the same thing that has occurred in the South is existing here to a certain degree. We do have the same problems.ED VAUGHN: Blacks in Detroit were relegated to the worst parts of town, called Black Bottom and Hastings Street. But we built homes there, and institutions developed there.LONNIE McCAULEY: It was very difficult, you know, to say the least. So, what my grandfather would do, he would just grow his own food.RHEA McCAULEY: My father had a green thumb. He’d work all day in the Chrysler plant, and then he would come home and work a garden. We grew up on fresh tomatoes, green peppers, onion. There was enough food in that little plot for him, grandmother, Auntie Rosa and Uncle Parks.LONNIE McCAULEY: Rosa Parks is a very creative person. And she would take [inaudible] and create stuff out of them — you know, of course, dresses and ideas of quilts.RHEA McCAULEY: She taught us how to sew. The stitches were absolutely perfect. She could tailor anything up. She could look at something and go home and sew it.
AMY GOODMAN: From The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Talk about this period, Yoruba, in Detroit. And, of course, that’s where, well, when she died, the big funeral was. But how Detroit shaped her?
YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, and how she shaped Detroit. I mean, you go there now, and you have murals, you have Rosa Parks Boulevard. Her imprint in that city is really palpable. So, “the Northern promised land that wasn’t,” I think, describes it all. And, of course, she’s there throughout the uprisings that happened in Detroit at that time, the biggest uprising, racial uprising, this country had seen.
She is there on the People’s Tribunal, which — excuse me — which was put together by the people of Detroit, by the Black people of Detroit, in response to the killing at Algiers Motel of the young boys who were getting no justice by the police. I mean, Detroit has a — like many cities, Detroit had a notorious relationship, violent relationship with the Black community. And she was part of a tribunal that was at the Church of the Black Madonna, a militant Black church, very famous church, activist church, that she also was a part of and attended. And they put on a tribunal. And they had, you know, to seek justice, some kind of justice, for the young boys and to, you know, give the — to rule that these officers were guilty.
She worked for John Conyers. She helped him get elected, and worked — that was her first paid political job. And Conyers was the first congressman to introduce the H.R. 40, the reparations bill. She was a supporter of reparations. I mean, her support for the Black freedom struggle all through the '60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, up until she passed, was through the work that was going on in Conyers' office and in Detroit.
AMY GOODMAN: More with Yoruba Richen, co-director of the new documentary The Rebellious Life of Mrs. [Rosa] Parks, and professor Jeanne Theoharis, when we come back in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: Lena Horne, singing “Stormy Weather.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the new Peacock documentary, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, that premieres Wednesday. On Friday, I spoke with the film’s co-director, Yoruba Richen, and Brooklyn College professor Jeanne Theoharis. I asked her to talk about how Rosa Parks had no problem supporting both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Exactly. She saw no contradiction. In fact, she would describe Malcolm X as her personal hero, and yet saw no contradiction with that and her incredible love and respect for Dr. King. She embraced Ella Baker and Queen Mother Moore. Right?
We hear JoAnn Watson in the film talk about her being holistic, that this — that one of the things that Mrs. Parks is so good at is that she shows up for everything. She is looking for all different kinds of strategies to challenge the kind of racial injustice in this country, the social injustice, poverty, war. Right? She has a whole platter of issues that she’s working on, and she’s not — she refuses to choose. You know, she is part of the NAACP, and yet she’s doing all of this work in the late '60s and 1970s around political prisoner cases, from Angela Davis to the Wilmington 10 to the RNA 11. And we see in the film what happens to the Republic of New Afrika, which is actually born in Detroit, is a reparations Black Power group, before it moves to Mississippi. She's a longtime supporter of reparations. She is an early opponent of the War in Vietnam. In fact, that’s part of why she’s supporting John Conyers in 1964 and helping him get elected, because he is such a staunch union person, like she is; he is already out against Vietnam, like she is.
And her job for Conyers really ends this decade of suffering for the Parks family. She had been working at what we could call a glorified sweatshop in the early '60s. Conyers' job comes with health insurance. Both she and Raymond had had a number of health issues — for her, related to the stress of this work. I think we don’t often understand the kind of toll this takes. We honor Rosa Parks, but we erase — right? — what is a decade of suffering, really, for her and her family.
But then she’s on the ground doing constituent work with John Conyers, doing work to challenge Detroit’s racism, and traveling the country, taking part in the Black Power convention in Philadelphia. She’s on staff at the National Black Political Convention in Gary. She is at one of the first meetings of N’COBRA, which is a reparations group. She’s doing work around South African divestment. When I was doing interviews for the book, I interviewed a lot of people who had worked with her in Detroit in these years, and over and over people would say she was everywhere. They would say, “I would go there, and I’d be surprised. Here’s Rosa again.” Over and over, at so many different political groups, rallies, marches, mobilizations, she was there.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to go back to this remarkable film, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, and look at how being a woman shaped her participation in the civil rights struggle. This clip features the historian Mary Frances Berry and Ericka Huggins of the Black Panther Party, activist Gloria Richardson, former Detroit City Councilmember JoAnn Watson, and Rosa Parks in her own words, again, read from her letters by actress LisaGay Hamilton.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] I was with the March on Washington in 1963. That was a great occasion. But women were not allowed to play much of a role.KEISHA BLAIN: The March on Washington is one example of how Black women are often marginalized in the civil rights movement. If you look at those who spoke, with the exception of Daisy Bates, who only spoke for a few minutes, the entire program was dominated by men.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] There was a tribute to women in which A. Philip Randolph, one of the organizers of the march, introduced some of the women who had participated in the struggle. And I was one of them.MARY FRANCES BERRY: They would have her stand up and wave at people. “There’s Rosa Parks! You know, she sat down on the bus in Montgomery. Wave at them, Rosa Parks, Mrs. Parks.” And she sat down. They never said anything beyond that.ERICKA HUGGINS: I was 15 when I went to the March on Washington. I stood there in awe of all of the people that had gathered. And I remember Lena Horne moving swiftly to the front of the stage, picked up a microphone and sung two syllables.LENA HORNE: Freedom!ERICKA HUGGINS: And they lingered in the air. There was a blanket of silence.GLORIA RICHARDSON: Lena, she was taking Rosa Parks around to European satellite stations and saying, “This is the woman that started Montgomery. This is who did that.” So, when I saw her doing that, I joined her. We was determined to see that Rosa Parks was recognized.REV. JOANN WATSON: There’s so much patriarchy built into the movement, like it’s built into so many institutions. Women raise most of the money, do most of the organizing, but when you go back and check the record, those who have been labeled presidents or directors or the leaders, the grand poobah, largely have been men, while the women have done the work. And Mother Parks, she was doing the work.
AMY GOODMAN: As you refer to her as “Mrs. Parks,” talk about your use, I mean, even in the title, The Rebellious Life, not of “Rosa Parks” but of “Mrs. Rosa Parks.” The significance of that honorific for Mrs. Parks?
YORUBA RICHEN: Well, I have to defer to Jeanne around that, but I know that as soon as — all I remember is that as soon as we started working on this film, we started referring to her as “Mrs. Parks.” And I think that was a Jeanne directive.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeanne?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: So, I mean, certainly, if you talk to anybody who knew Mrs. Parks, they refer to her as “Mrs. Parks.” And certainly, I remember as we started to do interviews, I was like, people are not going to — they are always going to say it, so we always have to say it. Right?
And I think the “Mrs.” does a couple of things. I think the first is it is an honorific that Black women, particularly Black women of Rosa Parks’s generation, did not get. And so, it is not surprising, then, that everyone who talks about Mrs. Parks, who knew her, are fastidious about using it, because it is giving her a kind of honorific that she was often denied.
I think there’s a second reason that I use it in the book, which is that I think “Rosa Parks” rolls off the tongue. We think we know her. And I think part of putting the “Mrs.” there was to stop us a little bit, to make us have to both take a step back, that she’s not ours — right? — that we don’t just get to use her however we want, but also that we might not know her. And so, I really fought to have “Mrs.” in the title. I also think that just the cadence of it is really lovely. But, basically, this is how anyone who knew her referred to her, and I think it makes us have to come to her and learn about her in a different way.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Yoruba.
YORUBA RICHEN: Oh, I was going to say, I also love how JoAnn Watson refers to her, as “Mother Parks,” as well.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Yes, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we want to end with one more clip from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. This is about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., beginning with Sam Cooke’s song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” We also hear from Rosa Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley.SAM COOKE: [singing] I was born by the river, in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river
I’ve been running ever sinceIt’s been a long
A long time coming
But I know a change gonna comeROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] His smooth voice was like medicine to the soul. It was as if Dr. King was speaking directly to me.RHEA McCAULEY: I rarely saw her show emotion. But when Dr. King was assassinated, I saw her cry at his funeral.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] I was losing the people I loved best. My husband and brother were all sick. And there was a time when I was traveling every day to three different hospitals to visit them. I had to quit working full-time and work only part-time.RHEA McCAULEY: Auntie Rosa and Uncle Parks loved each other 'til the end. As Uncle Parks's health deteriorated, the loving way that she would take care of him, they were so closely joined together.ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton] Parks died in 1977 when he was 74, after a five-year struggle against cancer. My brother Sylvester died three months after that, also of cancer. Mama was ill with cancer, too. I cared for her at home until she died at the age of 91.
AMY GOODMAN: That from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. As we begin to wrap up, Yoruba Richen, if you can talk about what Rosa Parks’s life means for today, the idea that rights not fully achieved — not in the film but very interesting — as her fierce opposition to Clarence Thomas becoming a Supreme Court justice, saying it would not represent a step forward in the road to racial progress but a U-turn on that road, like his statements on Brown v. Board of Education, and even on Roe v. Wade? Talk about this.
YORUBA RICHEN: Yeah, I mean, it’s quite remarkable, you know, that — her speaking out against his nomination, and what we’re going through today. I mean, granted, you know, when he was nominated, many of us knew this was not a positive thing for our civil rights. But she, as somebody who was obviously well known and considered the mother of the movement, her speaking out against him was very important. And those words ring true today. We’re seeing a total retrenchment of so many rights, from women’s rights to civil rights, gun rights — I’m sorry, gun control, a bunch of other cases that are on the docket that are in danger of taking away other rights.
So, Mrs. Parks, you know, sat on — I think of how she sat with her grandfather in the early 1900s, facing the KKK and defending — with him, defending his house, and, you know, where we are today, and that she never stopped fighting for that justice, and knew that we weren’t there, even at the end of her life. And obviously, we’re still not now, but it gives us some — gives me some inspiration and hope that you have to keep on keeping on. And I think Mrs. Parks knew that.
AMY GOODMAN: Yoruba Richen, co-director with Johanna Hamilton of the new Peacock documentary, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. It premieres on Wednesday. Yoruba is the founding director of the documentary program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, the City University of New York. The film is based on the biography by the same name that was written by Brooklyn College professor Jeanne Theoharis.
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