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

AMY GOODMAN:Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white passenger on December 1, 1955. This was the day that the modern civil rights movement was born. One network described her in 2005 as a tired seamstress. They said she wasn’t a troublemaker. But the media got it wrong. Rosa Parks was a first-class troublemaker.

Today, we spend an hour looking at the often-ignored side to her extraordinary life. It’s told in the new Peacock documentary, The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa ParksThe program will air on Peacock Wednesday October 19th at 9:59 pm.

On Friday, I spoke with two people involved. Yoruba Richen is the film’s co-director, acclaimed filmmaker, former Democracy Now!Producer, founder director of the documentary program at The Graduate School of Journalism CUNY. Jeanne Theoharis, Brooklyn College professor of political science, and author of the award winning biography, was also on hand. The Rebellious Life Of Mrs. Rosa Parks, upon which the new documentary is built.

I began by asking Yoruba richen why she decided to take on this project. She also explained why it was important to tell Rosa Parks’ story over half a century later.

YORUBA RICHEN:Johanna Hamilton, my codirector, reached out to me. She had spoken with Jeanne regarding the book and was surprised that Rosa Parks hadn’t been covered in a documentary. 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’ relationship with her husband, how he brought Parks into activism, all of her work after the boycott, how she got there, and the work 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 as a translator for Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: You know —

YORUBA RICHEN: And that’s — you know, we were at her beautiful memorial.

AMY GOODMAN:It was incredible. It was amazing. I was there, watching. CNNHere’s the newsroom 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 all hopped on the train and went down to tell the 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, Oprah Winfrey and Oprah Winfrey were present.


AMY GOODMAN:So that brings 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. 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. I now need to tell you a bit more about Mrs. I had a better understanding of Parks than I did. 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 2013, there’s no serious footnote or biography about 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. I realize how important her political life has become since 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. There was a much larger 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. This clip is 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]When I was six years old, I realized that we were not truly free. The Ku Klux Klan rode through the Black community, burning churches and killing people. I learned later that the violence was caused by African American soldiers returning from World War I. They were acting as if they deserved equal rights for having served their country. My grandfather kept his gun near him at all times during the worst of the violence. My grandfather was determined that he would defend his home, no matter what. I wanted to see him shoot that gun.

AMY GOODMAN:In this clip, Mrs. Rosa Parks’ Rebellious LifeWe learn more about Raymond Parks, also known as Parks, her husband.

ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton]Raymond Parks was the first activist I met. He was a long-standing member the NAACP.

ROSA PARKS:He was the first man I met since the death my grandfather. He was not ready for what we call “bying-and-scraping” and “yes-yesing.”

ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton]He was in his twenties, and was working as a barber at the Black barbershop in downtown Montgomery.

FRANCIS GOURRIER:Rosa and Raymond Parks meet through a mutual friend. Rosa initially doesn’t want to be involved.

ROSA PARKS: [read by LisaGay Hamilton]I thought he was too slender. My grandfather was the exception to my aversion to white men. 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 owned a car. It was a little red Nash, with a rumble seating. 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:A portion of The Rebellious Lives of [Mrs.] Rosa Parks. Yoruba Richen is this rich history. Rosa Parks’ story tells us the story about the 20th Century, from her grandfather in World War I through to her husband Raymond Parks and their relationship. Tell us about her family and how it shaped you, and what it tells you about the history and culture 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. That tells us so much about self-defense in our struggle for freedom and survival in this country. Self-defense was always an integral part of our strategy to defend our rights and bodily integrity. She is a perfect example of that, as you can see 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 ParksIn 30 seconds.