Civil Civil Rights Activist

Douglas Brinkley

Rosa Parks, A Life


          February 2013 was not only Black History month in the United States.  This year, February 4th also marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of legendary civil rights activist Rosa Parks, the woman who, on her way home from work on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.  Her refusal is often thought of as the event that launched the modern civil rights movement.  In his deftly written and concise biography, “Rosa Parks, A Life,” historian Douglas Brinkley debunks the view of Parks as simply a good-hearted but fed-up middle-aged seamstress too tired to give up her seat.  Brinkley, a prolific writer on American history, shows that throughout her adult life, Parks was not only a skillful seamstress but also a quiet, dignified and exceptionally persistent proponent of full equality for black Americans.  For many years prior to 1955, Parks worked behind the scenes for the Montgomery branch of the NAACP.  She was the organization’s informal stenographer and historian, setting out the “search for justice in concise memoranda and meeting notes” (p.70). 


            Moreover, even her refusal to cede her place that fateful December evening was due to her absent-mindedly boarding the bus driven by James Blake, a particularly abusive white driver whom Parks normally avoided.  Her act of civil disobedience, Brinkley argues, was “partly the result of her personal revulsion toward one particular bus driver” (p.59).  When Parks looked at Blake, “his hard, thoughtless scowl filled her with pity” (p.107).  “Are you going to stand up,” Blake demanded.  Parks looked straight at Blake and said “No.”  Flustered and not quite sure what to do, Blake retorted, “Well, I’m going to have you arrested,” to which Parks responded, “You may do that” (p.107).  


           Parks felt “fearless, bold, and serene,” Brinkley writes.  “Her majestic use of ‘may’ rather than ‘can’ put Parks on the high ground, establishing her as a protester, not a victim . . . And her formal dignified ‘No,’ uttered on a suppertime bus in the cradle of the Confederacy as darkness fell, ignited the collective ‘no’ of black history in America, a defiance as liberating as John Brown’s on the gallows in Harper’s Ferry” (p.107).  The 1955-56 Montgomery bus boycott became a crusade, with Parks, “the epitome of a good Christian woman” serving as a “rallying symbol [which] made it far easier for the ministers to boost morale.  If a day laborer’s feet got so tired that he thought of riding the bus, all he had to do was mutter ‘Rosa Parks,’ and the temptation would be gone” (p.142). 


          Parks shared the spotlight during the Montgomery bus boycott with a young pastor from nearby Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King.  A year later, the spotlight had passed from Parks to King, “upon whom the nation’s television crews and print reporters descended like a flock of ravenous crows” (p.170).  But Parks complemented the role of King and his male cohorts in the bus boycott and civil rights movement.  She:


shared their nobility and passion, but added to them the profoundest humility, gentleness, and decency.  She may have lacked her cohorts’ vocabulary and worldliness, but part of her lasting appeal is that nobody had a bad word to say about her (p.127).    


          Parks eventually moved from Montgomery to Detroit, Michigan, which she quickly learned was “not an oasis of tolerance” (p.67).  She worked for an upcoming young Congressman, John Conyers, now the senior African-American in the House of Representatives (and, for a while, my parents’ representative in Congress).  Conyers found that Parks had an “aura of something akin to majesty without the arrogance” (p.189).  He likened Parks to a nun who had no temper and “never raised her voice or betrayed anger in any way” (p.189).


          In 1967, Parks witnessed close up and first hand the Detroit riots, the start of a downward spiral in the Motor City which may still not have found the bottom (see my review of two books about Detroit, posted here last year).  It sickened Parks, Brinkley writes, to “see Detroit’s image as a model city for race relations shattered on July 23, 1967, when it exploded into what would become eight days of rioting, vandalism, and brutality in one of the most destructive civil disorders in American history” (p.202).  While the Montgomery bus boycott had produced its share of frightening moments, Parks had “never witnessed anything remotely like the terror and chaos in Detroit” (p.203). 


          Parks died in 2005, after publication of Brinkley’s book.  In the latter portion of her life, politicians across the country elbowed one another aside to have their photos taken with Parks, thereby demonstrating to constituents their tolerance and freedom from racism.  “Everybody wanted to shake Rosa Park’s hand,” Brinkley concludes, “but nobody wanted to delve into her lifetime commitment to political and economic justice for black Americans” (p.226).

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

February 20, 2013



Filed under American Politics, Biography, Uncategorized, United States History

7 responses to “Civil Civil Rights Activist

  1. Tom Thompson

    Tom, I gather you felt Brinkley’s “portrait” was convincing? Except for the “concise and deftly written” passing comment, you seem to purposefully abstain from critical comment on this treatment of Ms. Parks life, and let the book speak for itself. Since I know you never to be shy about wielding that formidable scalpel of yours, I’m thinking you thought the book was very well done throughout.

    My mother, a fellow Methodist, worked with Rosa Parks in her Detroit years, and described her to us very much as Brinkley describes her. Given your unparalleled feel for the cliche, I won’t apologize for using this one: she was an American hero. I am inspired every time I think of her. It sounds like the book does her justice.

    • Tom, I thought the book was well done. I decided to post it because, early in February, I read a couple of reviews of a new book on Parks, Jeanne Theoharis, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.” Theoharis is a professor at Brooklyn College, maybe a neighbor of yours. In any event, the reviews indicated that they thought that it was a major breakthrough to show Parks as a life long activist, rather than a lady who was fed up on evening in December 1955. I wanted to make the point that Brinkley had made this point well several years before Theoharis. Also, one reviewer noted that Theoharis’ book is fairly heavy with academic jargon, whereas Brinkley’s is definitely not.

  2. Tom P, maybe your parents also knew Rosa Parks? I know they they too worked in civil rights in the Detroit area as mother did. I have always been proud that my deeply southern mother would have understood so viscerally the wrongs of discrimination and participated in civil rights activities in Detroit and Grosse Pointe, no less, way back when. In the end, the legacy of that choice is still profound. I don’t know much of what she did, but I do remember her talking about Rosa Parks’ dignity. Your review makes me want to read the book and linger on the details. Her life still has a lot to teach us. I just finished David Halberstam’s The Fifties which I really enjoyed. There was a chapter on Rosa Parks detailing her work with NAACP and more. Also a good read. Thanks for the review.

    • Chanh Xuan Nguyen

      It takes years, strenuous effort, sometimes heroic struggle to shape a nation’s history. Yet tremendous change happens to be prompted by or irrevocably linked to a single, otherwise modest, person’s courageous gesture or determined action.
      Rosa Parks was such a person.

      • Chanh, Exactly right! It is a cliche to say that one person can make a difference and the cliche doesn’t apply to everyone. But it certainly does apply to Parks.

    • Lynn, As far as I know my mother didn’t have many or any direct contacts with Parks. You can certainly be proud of your mother and her ahead-of-her-time work in the ’50s and ’60s on civil rights in, as you say, Grosse Pointe, no less. See my response to your brother, above, about another more recent book on Parks. I haven’t read that one, but Brinkley’s is attractive because it is not too long and written for regular, non-academic readers (like you and me). I read just about everything that Halberstam wrote and remember well his book on the Fifties. I still mourn his untimely death.

  3. Pingback: Livelong Activism and Anger at American Injustice | tomsbooks

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