More Than a Symbol: ‘The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks’

“We know the story of the bus boycott. Everybody does, but there was so much more to know,” said Johanna Hamilton, who co-directed a new documentary with Yoruba Richen, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

“I never told anybody my feet were tired,” said civil rights icon Rosa Parks in a new documentary, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. (Courtesy of Peacock)

A new documentary on the extraordinary life of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks (1913-2005) premieres this week on Peacock, NBC’s streaming channel. Co-directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton and executive-produced by Soledad O’Brian, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks does much to prove she was more than a symbol.

This issue manifests in the depiction of the unveiling of the Rosa Parks statue in the National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in 2013. During the unveiling ceremony, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spoke of the civil rights leader who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala.—reducing the history-changing moment to a “simple act” in which “she was tired.”

This well-told, “tired” and worn-out narrative about Parks misses the full thrust of her strategic aims in resisting the laws of segregation at the time. This is a woman who, earlier that summer, attended the interracial Highlander Center in Tennessee, learning strategies of nonviolent resistance. The film, which does much to centralize the power of Parks’ voice, lets her speak for herself: “I never told anybody my feet were tired.”

Other voices round out this exquisite and revelatory history of one of our most revered women in the U.S. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, warns of reducing Parks’ actions to a simple act. “When we devoid a simple act of strategy, it then becomes easy to fix racism.”

Historian Mary Frances Berry expands on this, suggesting not an easy fix but a smokescreen, since the statue unveiling occurred the same day that oral arguments were heard in the Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court case, which gutted the Voting Rights Act that year.

“The irony is that Rosa Parks was at the march from Montgomery to Selma, and was part of the movement to get the Voting Rights Act passed in the first place,” Berry says. “And here they are enhancing voter suppression on that same day.”

Fellow historian Robin D. G. Kelley describes the statue as an “erasure” of her legacy, while Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, on which the documentary is based, refers to the symbol as a “trap.”  

Fortunately, this film frees the icon of Rosa Parks from this trap by fleshing out her full history, both personal and political.

“There hasn’t ever been a feature-length documentary about her until now, which we were shocked to learn,” Yoruba Richen told Ms. “And we really tell the story of her lifelong activism, her radical activism, both before the bus boycott and afterwards, really till the end of her life.”

“I was reading a Twitter thread by Jeanne Theoharis over morning coffee on Feb. 4, 2019,” co-director Johanna Hamilton said, “which is on Mrs. Parks’ birthday. And I was struck, kind of lifted out of the morning daze by a slew of facts that consistently amazed me that were not the bus boycott at all.

“They ranged from her as a 6-year-old sitting out on the front porch with her grandfather, standing vigil over their house, worried that the Klan might break in, to her work for John Conyers over 25 years and many other things. And I was just like, ‘How come I don’t know all of this? We know the story of the bus boycott. Everybody does, but there was so much more to know.”

(Courtesy of Peacock)

The documentary, running for 96 minutes, successfully tells this longer history by making use of interviews with talking head experts, relatives, friends and community members. It also incorporates archival photographs—made vivid through 3D visualizations and colorization in one instance—along with video footage of Rosa Parks herself among other civil rights leaders. It lets us hear Rosa Parks’ voice in both audio and visual recordings while relying on actor LisaGay Hamilton to narrate her letters and other personal writings.

“We really wanted to lead with her voice,” Richen said, “because people haven’t gotten a chance to hear her talk. So that was also a guiding principle in how we made the film.”

Hamilton added, “Even though she’s held up as a national heroine, she gets stripped of her lifelong history. So, that’s what we’re aiming to correct and examine.”

In the documentary, we learn of Rosa Parks’ radicalism and activism that informed her momentous action on a Montgomery bus, as well as her quiet and humble demeanor (part of the reason she is often overlooked). Her determination and quiet resistance made an impression on so many, including the great anti-apartheid freedom fighter and future South African president Nelson Mandela, who sought out Parks from a long stretch of VIP guests greeting him in Detroit in 1990 during his first visit to the U.S. after his release from prison after 27 years. He had read about her during his incarceration and embraced her as a fellow freedom fighter.

(Courtesy of Peacock)

Richen is most impressed that Rosa Parks’ activist legacy is one of self-defense.

“For a long time, I guess even now, the self-defense argument was always pitted against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Richen said. “These strategies [nonviolence and self-defense] were viewed in opposition in the Black freedom struggle. But in fact, they worked together.

“First off, self-defense has always been a part of the freedom struggle, and it had to be for survival,” Richen continued. “Dr. King, when he was at a lot of those marches, he was being protected by Black folks who were carrying guns and who were practicing self-defense. So, they literally worked in concert. I think Rosa Parks’ embrace of both these strategies really says something about how Black people have thought about their freedom and have won the rights that we’ve won.”

The film explores how Rosa Parks, as a child, witnessed her grandfather carrying a gun to protect the family from the Klan. She also admitted to suffering from chronic insomnia due to this period of Jim Crow violence. Parks worked in solidarity with various radical Black organizations, such as the New Republic of Africa and the Black Panthers, and befriended militants like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.

Even before these political engagements, Parks married her husband Raymond Parks, a barber and member of the NAACP who was active in the struggle over the Scottsboro Boys in the ’30s. She became involved with the NAACP and served as its secretary, eventually partnering with Montgomery Branch President E.D. Nixon.

Parks and Nixon’s partnership transformed their NAACP chapter from an elitist institution concerned with Black middle-class issues into one focused on activist social change, from voter registration to resistance to public transit discrimination.

Long before Parks refused to give up her seat, she was doing the dangerous and courageous work as NAACP field secretary, gathering stories and evidence of brutal racial oppression throughout Jim Crow Alabama—including the rampant sexual violence against Black women and girls. The film discusses two women for whom Parks advocated: Recy Taylor in 1944, who was unable to receive justice, and Joan Little in 1974, who was acquitted for killing her white rapist jailor in North Carolina.

She had health issues. She was in a precarious situation up until then. She got no economic help from the leaders of the movement after the boycott. We don’t often talk about that aspect of the movement.

Yoruba Richen
(Courtesy of Peacock)

Parks constantly linked the intersections of gender and racial justice, including her work with the women’s council in Montgomery, led by Jo Ann Robinson, which mobilized the bus boycott in response to her arrest—while E.D. Nixon moved ahead with a case against the Montgomery bus company, a case he felt he could win with Parks serving as plaintiff. The film delves deeper into the connections between Parks and then 15-year-old Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat months earlier and was also part of Parks’s NAACP youth group.

Despite Parks being viewed as a more “respectable” plaintiff than Colvin, as an older, lighter-skinned and married seamstress, Parks remained and was committed to working-class struggles throughout her life. She and her husband struggled economically in the wake of the bus boycott and had to move to Detroit when Rosa Parks lost her seamstress job due to her stand.

“Our film really shows the economic hardship that she faced,” Richen said. “That is, until she got a job many years later working for [Congressman] John Conyers, which was her first job that had health insurance. It was very important. She had health issues. She was in a precarious situation up until then. She got no economic help from the leaders of the movement after the boycott. So, we don’t often talk about that aspect of the movement.”

By the time of the March on Washington in 1963, there was real concern that Rosa Parks was being forgotten in the wake of the success of the boycott, which propelled Martin Luther King, Jr. onto the world stage as the movement’s spokesperson while the march proved to be an all-male leadership affair. The film includes a segment of celebrated singer, actor and civil rights activist Lena Horne grabbing the mic at the march—in an act of Black feminist resistance—to sing out one word: “FREEDOM!” She then proceeded to introduce Rosa Parks to every reporter who would listen. The voice of another prominent civil rights woman, Gloria Richardson, is also featured in which she describes seeing Lena Horne and being inspired to do the same thing in bringing more attention to Parks.

It’s a strong testament to the long history of Black feminists safeguarding Black women’s legacy, as this film has done.

Underneath an icon, beneath an icon, the surface of an icon, we discover somebody even more impressive.

Johanna Hamilton
(Courtesy of Peacock)

Hamilton, who was surprised that Parks’ grandparents on both sides of her family had been enslaved, found it interesting that she is often conflated with another icon, Harriet Tubman.

“People would often ask her if she knew Harriet Tubman,” as if they were acquaintances, Hamilton said. Perhaps there is just a confused syncing between two Black women civil rights leaders—both frozen in time as grandmotherly figures leading us to a freer nation, despite the fullness and complexity of their nonagenarian lives. Incidentally, Rosa Parks was born just one month before Tubman died on March 10, 1913. One freedom fighter comes into the world, just as the other leaves it.

It is only fitting that, on this bicentennial year of Tubman’s birth and the same year of the first documentary feature of Tubman’s life (which aired on Oct. 4 on PBS), we would also have the first documentary feature of Rosa Parks. It’s equally fitting that another Black woman leader, Mamie-Till Mosley, who famously let the world see the racially charged brutality committed against her son Emmett Till just months before Parks’ defiance on a bus, is also getting her story told—first in the ABC limited series Women of the Movement and now on the big screen in Chinonye Chukwu’s Till.

As Hamilton observes about these women’s stories: “Underneath an icon, beneath an icon, the surface of an icon, we discover somebody even more impressive.”

She believes the times we’re living in have made these stories even more urgent.

“I think there’s a new political consciousness,” Hamilton said. “I think America is poised at a perilous time, so we’d like audiences to feel the story couldn’t be more necessary.”

Richen agreed: “I think in this dystopian time that we’re in, we see Mrs. Parks as someone who never gave up. She never stopped speaking out and was never satisfied with where we were as a people and as a country. That can give us at least some measure of the will to move forward.”

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks airs Wednesday, Oct. 19, on Peacock.

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.