Brooklyn College professor fills in the gaps of Rosa Parks’ history in Wednesday lecture

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 - 8:15pm

Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College political science professor and American culture Ph.D. alum from the University of Michigan, spoke to a crowd of approximately 30 people Wednesday evening in Tisch Hall on the role of Rosa Parks in the modern-day iterations of the civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter.  

Theoharis was invited to speak at the University as part of the bicentennial celebration’s themed semester initiative, which strives to explore the origins of the University of Michigan and its role in the state, country and world. This semester’s theme — Making Michigan — in part focuses on the history of the University’s political activism.

The talk was based on the findings and research published in Theoharis’s most recent book, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” which was awarded the 2014 NAACP Image Award and the 2013 Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians.

Rosa Parks’ story and her rise as a leader in the civil rights movement often begins on a December evening in 1955 when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man, propelling the civil rights movement into action.

This simple narrative is the one that is often taught. However, according to Theoharis, it is missing key elements of Parks’s life. Theoharis’ historical account is one she believes is crucial to understanding and recognizing that Parks dedicated her life to civil rights activism.

“Rosa Parks is everywhere, yet most of what we know about her is wrong,” she said to the crowd. “I wrote this book as a response to this fable. We need to grapple with her actual life and legacy.”

Part of Theoharis’s confrontation with Parks's role in the civil rights movement was filling in the historic gaps that often forget the roles of political organizing.

Theoharis began her talk with a broad history of Parks, beginning with an explanation that Parks’s activism began long before her stance on the bus.

In elementary school, a white boy pushed Parks. She pushed the boy back, drawing a reaction from the boy’s mother. The boy’s mother threatened Parks, but instead of resigning to the mother’s threat, Parks responded.

“I didn't want to be pushed,” Parks said to the boy’s mother. Theoharis referenced this quote throughout the talk, emphasizing Parks’s commitment to rebellion from an early age and her feisty side.

By emphasizing that Parks’s commitment to change began long before the bus standoff, Theoharis made the point that enacting social change takes time.

“I think often the way the story is told to us is she sits down and miraculously there's this moment and then they win,” Theoharis said. “We miss the work of that, and for those of us building movements today, we have to see that that's not the case, it takes a lot of work.”

LSA senior Lindsay Green appreciated this sentiment and plans to apply it to her daily life.  

“You don't know when something is going to change, you have to choose to make change,” Green said. “I think that that’s really inspiring and a good reminder that today we have to choose to do that even if we might not get any positive outcome right away.”

Theoharis emphasized this idea throughout her talk, while also trying to communicate to students the idea that social change is not always positively received.

“Most Americans did not agree with the civil rights movement when it happened,” she said. “But it’s important to remember that doing the work of justice is not necessarily popular at the time, there's nothing natural about it.”

By the end of the talk, Theoharis had elaborated on Parks’ story, and she inspired students to enact changes in their own communities.

LSA senior Lauren Rose was inspired by Theoharis’s talk and she plans to use lessons learned from the talk in her own community.  

“It's important to be aware that the smallest things can make a huge change and a huge impact,” she said. “I think that I'm going to take that and go forward in terms of how I’m going to continue my activism in my own community.”