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Rosa Parks Was a Lot Tougher Than You Thought

Biography of civil rights icon describes a lifetime of courageous, audacious activism

If you think you know Rosa Parks, a new book that’s come out close to what would have been the 100th birthday of the famed civil rights pioneer might force you to reassess.

Parks, born Feb. 4, 1913,  is remembered largely as the humble seamstress whose refusal to surrender her seat to a white man sparked the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, which in turn inspired the decades of protests, marches and civil disobedience that collectively made up the civil rights movement.

But in her new book, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” historian Jeanne Theoharis reveals that Parks was far from the passive catalyst of history she’s often portrayed to be in grade school lessons. Rather, Parks’ calculated decision not to yield on that December day in 1955 was but one battle in a lifelong struggle for racial equality and human dignity.

By the mid-1950s, Theoharis says in an interview with Democracy Now!, Parks had been a member of the NAACP for 12 years, having been elected secretary of the Montgomery, Ala., branch almost immediately. She spent years before the boycott traveling the Jim Crow South on NAACP business.

In his review of the book, New York Times columnist Charles Blow notes that Parks’ struggle against injustice began even earlier, partly inspired by a grandfather who was a follower of Marcus Garvey, the founder of one of the first black nationalist movements. Parks would sit with her grandfather on the porch at night while he kept a shotgun nearby in case the Ku Klux Klan showed up. Also while still a girl, she threatened a white man who was taunting her with a rock -- an act of almost unimaginable defiance in the Deep South of the era.

The book explodes other myths about Parks (she actually wasn’t a seamstress, for example, but something closer to a skilled tailor) that would make for enlightening reading for anyone seeking to learn more about one of the most misunderstood icons of the civil rights movement.

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