Skip to content Skip to footer

New Film Explores Untold Radical Life of Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks

“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” examines Parks’s legacy beyond helping to inspire the Montgomery bus boycott.

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 <em>The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,</em> 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.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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.

[break]