Melissa Harris Perry
updated 2/3/2013 3:19:08 PM ET 2013-02-03T20:19:08

Host Melissa Harris-Perry kicked off Black History Month with an illuminating conversation about the late Rosa Parks before her 100th birthday, revealing facts that prove her life was much more than one famous incident on a bus.

Monday marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of celebrated civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Host Melissa Harris-Perry kicked off Black History Month with an illuminating conversation about this influential leader, revealing facts that prove her life was much more than one famous incident on a bus. Joining her for the discussion was Jeanne Theoharis, author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

Theoharis spoke passionately on the show about the biography. “This is not about one day or one act, it’s about a lifetime of courageous acts,” she said as she described some of the accounts noted in her book.

Although the prominence of Rosa Parks is concentrated on the Montgomery, Alabama bus incident of 1955, her character was also displayed through a combination of several other notable acts over her lifetime. Theoharis explained that for most of her political life, Parks worked diligently to challenge racial inequality in Detroit, Michigan.

In her new home, “the promise land that wasn’t,” Parks discovered that racial injustice and imminent danger was just as pervasive in Detroit as it was in the south. She joined forces with the NAACP in her new northern city to address social wrongs such as police brutality against African-Americans and legal lynching.

For over a decade, Parks worked with the NAACP and drew her inspiration from leaders like Malcolm X. But despite some of the extreme tactics of other activists of her time, Parks was revered  for her non-violent approach–just like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–to radical change. Harris-Perry was surprised to discover that although Parks was against physical force in her activism, she did carry a gun for self-defense.

Parks’ stance on guns is only one of many details of her life that has been overshadowed by her stunt on the bus in Montgomery. Harris-Perry expressed her frustration that widely, the fascinating story of Rosa Parks has been “reduced to a children’s story” of the “tired seamstress who just didn’t get up.” Theoharis was extremely cognizant of this perception, as it was part of her motivation to write the book. She adamantly promotes through her text that Rosa Parks was much more than her actions one afternoon after work.

Video: The Rosa Parks you don’t know

  1. Closed captioning of: The Rosa Parks you don’t know

    >>> monday, would have been the 100th birthday of rosa parks . i'm not trying to embarrass anyone, but be honest when you hear the name rosa parks , what do you think of? the woman who sat in the front of the bus, right? the story of to seamstress in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded montgomery bus. it is a staple to civil rights lore in textbooks, but can you tell me one other thing about rosa parks ? yes, see, for everyone who is ready on twitter, don't be offended, but all i am saying is that all you know about rosa parks is that one moment, you are missing the big vast thing that is in fact rosa parks , but yes, she refused to give up the seat, but what else do we know about her? how many of us know she was thrown off of the bus a decade earlier by the same driver, that she had been working with the naacp for more than a decade to document brutality against african-americansb, or one of my favorite factoids, her personal hero was malcolm x . there is so much more that goes beyond rosa parks and it is told in a new book "the rebellious life" and written by the professor of jean tomlinson, and i am happy that this book is out. tell us the folks out in nerdland what this is about.

    >> it is not one day or one act, but it is about a lifetime of courageous acts that she does over and over before the boycott and then 30 years before the boycott in detroit the make courageous stand her life so that the idea of one day is a myth.

    >> i don't want people to miss this, but in detroit . so shortly, she leaves the south, and ends up spending most of her adult time in detroit .

    >> right. more than half of her political life is spent in detroit in what she called the promised land that wasn't. she very much finds race nichl detroit when they moved there, and they moved there eight months after the boycott ends, and they have lost their jobs, and they are still getting death threats so many ways, they are exiled and forced to leave montgomery for detroit where her brother live, and she does not find too much difference between race relations in montgomery and detroit . so just as she did in montgomery , she is setting out to challenge racial inequality in schools, jobs, and housing in detroit .

    >> well, it is interesting, jeanne, because as i read the introduction, we would think that this should be the third or the fourth or the tenth volume on parks, but in fact, she has been reduced to kind of a stories' children and this tired seamstress who just didn't get up, but she had a long trajectory before that moment on the bus and not just after it.

    >> absolutely. absolutely. she joins the ncaa in 1943 when she realizes that women can be part of the local branch. she has right, more than a decade, and sometimes when we say the naacp today, that seems mild, but in 1943 and particularly as she and edie nixon start to work to transform the montgomery branch into a more activist branch, this is dangerous work as they try to document white brutality and protest lynching and protest segregation. and so much that happened up to that point.

    >> and she had relationships with people like stoakley carmichael and thought of malcolm x and his defense of self-defense as a central strategy for her, and that mrs. parks remained armed even throughout the montgomery bus boycott , because of the violence she faced. so we think of her and king as the non-violent leaders, but she was a leader concerned with self-defense.

    >> yes, a lifelong leader in self-defense and she gets it from her grandfather when the klan rages through alabama and shoots her husband. and the nine scotsboro boys who are rapidly convicted in 1951 of rape charges, they keep a gun this the house many in many ways, because the organizing is so dangerous. so, yes, she is a lifelong believer in self-defense, but believes in the power of organized nonviolence leading up to the montgomery bus boycott .

    >> i have been seeing you speak on this in academic circles for a long time and here it is african- american history month and two days before what would have been her 100th birthday and thank you for bringing rosa parks back to us in this country.

    >> thank you.

    >>> and up next, what is going on with my governor? why louisiana's bobby jindal has me saying it again, #fbj.


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