Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"You've said enough:" The missing speaker's voice of Mrs. Rosa Parks

"Finding and hearing Rosa Parks has not been easy," writes Jeanne Theoharis, author of the newly released The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, issued in time for the 100th anniversary of her birth, which happened earlier this week. As someone who's been trying to pull together a  post on a Parks speech for years, I couldn't agree more. Theoharis has written a book that at once answers many of my questions about Parks as a speaker as well as explains--for me, at least--why you haven't yet seen her featured here on the blog.

I knew that Parks was a frequent speaker, but couldn't lay hands on  texts of her speeches; often, references to them didn't include full citations or even the date or venue. Surprisingly few books for adults have been written about Parks's life, and one by historian Douglas Brinkley oddly includes no footnotes. The many books for children, and many of her media interviews, preserve the image of the timid, tired seamstress who just wanted to sit down--instead of the strong activist who made an intentional act of civil disobedience. A lawsuit between her family and the repository of many of her papers has kept them in boxes, unavailable to researchers and writers.

Parks, though an active organizer and adept speaker, was kept from speaking at two of the biggest moments of her career, at the rally right before the trial for her bus protest, and at the 1963 March on Washington. "You've said enough," she was told. At those most visible moments, she was spoken about, but not allowed to speak.

That experience is a kind of cautionary tale for women speakers--letting others keep you silent, failing to publish your own speeches, and letting others tell your story can mean that, in the end, your work is ignored and misunderstood. In the retelling of her story, she was made out to be a "seamstress" when she was an assistant tailor, a higher position; meek when she was an activist; "just tired" and needing to sit, when, as she put it, "I was tired of giving in." So Theoharis has strung together evidence to the contrary from hundreds of interviews and other documents in this book, giving us the "rebellious" picture to replace the one we've had all these years. She acknowledges that the unexamined archive of Parks's papers and effects may well contradict even this new view, but for now, it is a refreshing and welcome read that adds to a fuller picture of this eloquent woman.

Someday, I'll get my hands on one of her actual speeches, and we'll have that Famous Speech Friday post. In the meantime, dip into Theoharis's book to update your vision of Parks and read about many of her famous speeches. You can hear an interview with Theoharis here.

(Photo of Rosa Parks from the National Archives)