© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks' documentary gives you the complete picture of the activist's life

Rosa Parks speaking at the conclusion of a 1965 civil rights march in Montgomery, Ala.
Stephen F. Somerstein
Getty Images
Rosa Parks speaking at the conclusion of a 1965 civil rights march in Montgomery, Ala.

Rosa Parks is one of the most recognized figures in American history, and despite fighting for civil rights for six decades, we largely only know about her role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So why is that?

A new documentary The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks seeks to change the image we have of an innocent seamstress and correct it to show how radical and extensive Parks’ efforts were throughout her entire life.

The documentary is based off of the biography of the same name, written by political scientist, historian and Milwaukee native Jeanne Theoharis. She also served as a consulting producer for the film.

Theoharis says she started her research in 2005 after Rosa Parks died, becoming the first woman, the second African American, and the first civilian ever to lie in the Capitol. "It was on the one hand this amazing honoring of [a] civil rights activist, and particularly the role of women, and yet the way she was being talked about, the way she was remembered seemed to get smaller and smaller. And it seemed to be fixated on the bus," she notes.

As Theoharis started collect research she realizes there's no serious footnote and biography on Rosa Parks outside of Parks' autobiography for young adults, and that's when she decided she needed to write it.

"I was coming to this project as a scholar of the Civil Rights movement outside the South. And so here, in arguably the most famous woman activist of the Civil Rights movement, we have this whole second half that we don’t tend to talk about," says Theoharis.

As for why we don't learn about the complete picture of Parks' life, Theoharis believes "the fable serves some of our interest in the present."

"When you see that in some sense the essence of Rosa Parks' courage was the ability to do things again, and again, and again and not to be able to see where they would go, but to be able to do them anyways. That's a very different version and vision of what social change takes in the United States," she adds.

Another missing part of the Parks narrative is the "decade of suffering" she and her family went through after the Montgomery Bus Boycott fallout, according to Theoharis. Parks moved to Detroit, Mich., where she and her husband struggled for work in a part of the country that wasn't as different from Montgomery as she hoped. In fact, she didn't secure a regular job until Congressman John Conyer's hired her in 1965 after she worked on his campaign.

Another important part of Parks' life story often left out is that her political philosophy and tactics were wide-ranging depending on the time and the issues she was working on, says Theoharis.

"I mean she was very much a ‘both/and’ kind of person. So she saw no contradiction between her kind of deep admiration and respect for Dr. King and her deep love for Malcom X," she explains.

Parks also worked on criminal justice issues — from wrongful accusation of Black people, the sexual violence Black women in particular face, to police brutality and more.

"These are issues that she works on for all those decades," notes Theoharis. "Her political approach is a little like quilting — that different materials just make it more beautiful, different squares set off the color of other squares, adding a new square doesn't ruin the quilt."

Theoharis says we can learn from the vision, tenacity, and faith in dissenting that Parks shared. But most importantly, we can learn these things from her in her own voice and see her in more than just a few images, thanks to the film.

"What I hope the documentary does is show us kind of this breadth of her and what that offers us today," she says. "Because I think the other problem with the way she's trapped in the past is that it doesn't seem to offer us a lot for today when the actual Rosa Parks does,"

“The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” will be the opening night film of the Cultures and Communities festival Wednesday Sept. 14 at the Oriental Theater. There will be an additional screening on Sept. 15.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Related Content