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You Don’t Know Rosa Parks (Until You’ve Seen This Peabody-Winning Documentary)
Few people are as famous—or as misunderstood—as Rosa Parks. Most of us came away from grade school with the following understanding of this Black icon of the civil rights movement: She was old, she was tired, and in 1955, she sat down in the white section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after a long day’s work as a seamstress. This humble individual action of an ordinary woman, we learned, ignited a 13-month citywide bus boycott with historical national implications in the battle to dismantle Jim Crow.
But in reality, she was only 42 years old, and, yes, she was tired—tired, that is, of Black people being treated as lesser beings, literally relegated to the back of the bus as unequal citizens. She sat down knowing that local activists, including herself, had been in search of the right test case to take bus segregation to court. (Her action would lead to a Supreme Court ruling that bus segregation was unconstitutional.) And that’s only the beginning of what most people get wrong about Parks, who dedicated her life to fighting for Black people in America, alongside not only Martin Luther King Jr. but also more radical forces like Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
The Peabody-winning documentary The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks seeks to set the record straight. Produced by Soledad O’Brien, it is, shockingly, the first feature-length documentary film about one of the most-recognized but least truly known figures in American history. “She would constantly correct reporters and say, ‘I wasn’t tired. I was no more tired than any other day. I was tired of being pushed around,’” O’Brien says. “You think you know the story of Rosa Parks, but you don’t know the story of Rosa Parks if you think it began and ended with the bus boycott. It began so much earlier with a woman who was absolutely livid at the circumstances that Black people were being forced to live in. And it ended with a person who continued to fight day in and day out for opportunities for her people.” Given that she didn’t die until 2005, at the age of 92, that is a lot of fighting.
The documentary project began with a Twitter thread meant to “get us beyond the myths” about Parks, written by political science professor Jeanne Theoharis, author of the biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, upon which the film is based. Director Johanna Hamilton brought Theoharis’ thread to the attention of O’Brien. “I’ve done a couple of docs on the civil rights movement,” O’Brien says. “I’m pretty well-read.” But she found herself learning a lot from Theoharis: “I love being surprised by so much about Rosa Parks’ life, that the bus boycott was a sliver of all that she was able to accomplish.” Eventually Hamilton teamed up with co-director Yoruba Richen to make the film with O’Brien’s production company.
O’Brien believes stories like Parks’, in particular, are softened into a more palatable form for the white, mainstream masses—because Parks was Black, because she was a woman, and because she became much less frightening when we focused on her small stature and her middle age and the idea that she was physically tired rather than angry. “I think we’d like a very sanitized version of civil rights,” O’Brien says. “And I think these things generally are messier and tougher. But I do think part of the job of journalism is to go back and say, ‘What actually happened?’”
To that end, here are three things from The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks that you should know about this extraordinary woman’s life—but you should definitely watch the full documentary to learn even more.
Where to Watch: Peacock
1. She was part of an ongoing, women-led movement to desegregate the bus system.
Other women had sat down before her and been arrested for doing so, including Viola White, Geneva Johnson, Mary Wingfield, and teenager Claudette Colvin. Parks was well aware of these women’s actions, and had even fundraised for Colvin’s case and mentored her as a youth activist with the NAACP. “That was brand new to me,” O’Brien says. “The fact that it was another person who was in that same circle changes things.” Her efforts were part of a larger strategic effort; she was more involved and better informed than history depicts her and many women like her who were instrumental in the movement. After Parks was arrested, the Women’s Political Council called for a one-day boycott. The longer-range action gained momentum from there.
2. After her arrest, she lost her job and faced continuing harassment in Montgomery, so she moved to Detroit. But she didn’t give up on activism.
At this point a nationally known civil rights figure, Parks continued to make public appearances and do interviews to support the cause. But she wasn’t shy about speaking her mind. “There’s another moment when a reporter’s talking about racism in the South, and she’s like, ‘And in the North,'” O’Brien says. “Like, let me remind this reporter. She was tough.”
3. Her activism included brave, thankless work recording the stories of Black sexual assault survivors.
As part of her job as secretary of the NAACP, she traveled to women’s homes to record their testimony about being sexually assaulted or raped. “She would go and meet with a woman who would tell her side of the story, and Rosa Parks is dutifully taking notes for posterity,” O’Brien says. “Think of the courage you have to have to do that. The police are circling outside of the house, trying to threaten both of them. And [Parks] is like, ‘No, your testimony matters.’ I choke up every time I think about that.”