By Marc Steiner / The Real News
Sanitized histories of the Civil Rights Movement have erased the long history of activism and struggle that defined the life of Rosa Parks long before she defied Jim Crow codes on a Montgomery bus. Yet Rosa Parks’s dedication to the Black freedom struggle preceded the Montgomery Bus Boycott by decades. She joined the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys in 1932, and was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943. As an NAACP member, Parks investigated the gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a Black woman from Alabama, and helped organize the Committee for Equal Justice for Recy Taylor, which brought national attention to the systemic sexual assault of Black women and helped lay the organizing foundations of the future Civil Rights Movement. Biographer Jeanne Theoharis and documentarian Yoruba Richen join The Marc Steiner show to set the record straight on the many under-appreciated contributions of Rosa Parks.
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Marc Steiner: Sam Cooke, A Change Is Going To Come. It’s one of the themes of our movement. It holds the power of struggle to end racism and for freedom and equality, and was made part of the heartbeat of this film we’re about to talk about today. So welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. We’re about to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the birth of Mrs. Rosa Parks, an iconic figure in our nation’s history, but whose real story has been so sanitized that it created this myth of sainthood that she was just a tired old seamstress who was arrested on her way home for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated public bus system in Montgomery, Alabama that led to the 1955 Montgomery Bus boycott, that gave birth to the civil rights movement and the fame of Dr. Martin Luther King.
Well, she did refuse to give up that seat. She was arrested, and it did raise the profile of King to the national spotlight. But Mrs. Rosa Parks was an activist to her bones, a fighter for Black freedom and justice. She was secretary of the local NCAAP, that was an activist branch led by the union leader, E.D. Nixon. She fought for the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. Her grandfather liked Marcus Garvey and took no nonsense from racist whites in Alabama. Well, let me stop there and we’ll catch up to all of that in this conversation. The myth of Mrs. Rosa Parks was broken in apart by a book and a documentary, both called The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. The original book was written by Jeanne Theoharis, who is the author or co-author of 11 books and numerous articles on civil rights, Black power movements, and race in America.
Her biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, won a 2014 NAACP Image Award and the Letitia Woods Brown Award from the Association of Black Women Historians. And this powerful documentary, the Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks was co-directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton. Yoruba Richen is our guest today. She’s an award-winning and amazing filmmaker, director and screenwriter, and producer. Her film, The Green Book: Guide to Freedom was broadcast on the Smithsonian Channel to record audiences and was awarded the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking. She is the founding director of the documentary program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. And I could go on for days about what these two women have accomplished, but let’s begin the conversation about Mrs. Rosa Parks on the week of her 110th birthday. Welcome. I’m so happy that both of you could join us today.
Yoruba Richen: Thank you. Happy to be here.
Jeanne Theohari…: Yeah. It’s great to be here.
Marc Steiner: I want to get just a broader question for us to start because it comes up all the time, why you think and how it happened that Rosa Parks went from this powerful, militant, take no nonsense fighter for freedom into this tired old woman who didn’t want to get up out of her seat as an icon. Yoruba, let me start with you and Jeanne, jump in. How do you think that happened and why do you think it happened?
Yoruba Richen: I think it happened for a lot of reasons. I think that you have to look at sexism and patriarchy within the movement, within the civil rights movement within the Black Freedom Struggle that barely acknowledges the vital role of women in the struggle. We’re only now starting to unpack and uncover that. I think that Mrs. Parks, her personality was not one that was very loud, what’s the word? Quiet strength, as one of our interviewees says. So that also I think added to the myth of a meek woman. And as Jeanne told us from the beginning, she was never asked about things besides the boycott, so people many people did not know of the breath of her activism and her work.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. Self-aggrandizement was not part of her character.
Yoruba Richen: Yes, exactly. That’s [inaudible 00:05:08]
Marc Steiner: Jeanne?
Jeanne Theohari…: I think we need to think about a few things. One, I think part of the myth actually starts in the boycott itself, and it starts because… so the Montgomery bus boycott goes from December 5th, 1955 to December 21st, 1956. We are in the height of the Cold War, and almost immediately as the boycott begins, as she decides to fight her case in court, rumors snake through Montgomery’s white community that she’s a communist plant, that she’s an NAACP plant, that she’s an outside agitator, that she has a car. She’s not even from Montgomery, on and on and on. And so what you will see is over the next few weeks how the Black press talks about her, how King and other leaders talk about her, even how Mrs. Parks talks about herself increasingly background her long political history in favor of this Christian seamstress image because Mrs. Parks’ long political history in 1950s America was a liability for her, for the movement, as was many people’s civil rights activism.
To be a civil rights activist in Alabama in 1956, just to remember, in June of 1956, Alabama outlaws the NAACP as a foreign organization. It’s red-baiting civil rights activists. And so part of the myth begins during the boycott itself, which is that the backgrounding of Mrs. Parks’ long political history before it, even though that’s key to why many people get to the breaking point when she’s arrested and trust that she can withstand the pressure that will come down on anybody who’s willing to be a kind of legal case. So her politics and her and the way she’s known in the community is key to why people rally behind her, but those same politics over the next weeks and months will get backgrounded for the safety of the movement. So that’s one thing.
I think the second point that Yoruba was just mentioning to us is the ways that the civil rights movement gets trapped and constrained in part also by the Cold War politics of the time as being a southern struggle, as being only nonviolent, as being only about things like the desegregation of public accommodations, not about housing discrimination or jobs, not about school segregation in the north.
And so Yoruba was mentioning, many of the interviews we have of Mrs. Parks, many of the oral histories take place in Detroit in John Conyer’s office where she’s working, and they don’t ask her anything about Detroit. They don’t ask her anything about her work for John Conyers. They don’t ask her about Vietnam, they don’t ask her about what she’s doing or the congressman’s agenda. And I think we can see sexism in that as well. It seems hard to imagine you have a male civil rights activist turn Congressional aid, you would think to say, “Well, what are you working on?” But with Mrs. Parks, and she will lament for decades, as she talks about it sometimes, to pull off that scab that she constantly has to talk about that one day when she. And the title of my book and the film is taken from a quote from her where she talks about having a life history of being rebellious.
Marc Steiner: Let’s talk a bit about that life history. One of the things that the book and the film really can dive into is the early Mrs. Rosa Parks. Let me stop for a second. What I just did, I said the early Rosa Parks, then I said the early Mrs. Rosa Parks. Yoruba, one of the things that least I think is important to say here as I move on is how important the Mrs. Rosa Parks is to when people just say, “Rosa Parks.” I had to digress in my own head when I heard myself talk. Could you-
Yoruba Richen: Yeah. And I definitely have to let Jean take this one because she is the one who told us from-
Marc Steiner: Okay, fine.
Yoruba Richen: … the beginning the importance of the Mrs. Just briefly, how I think of it is it’s a sign of respect, obviously.
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Yoruba Richen: We had another person in the film, Reverend Joanne Watson, call her Mother Parks, which I also think is a beautiful name as well. But Jeanne really was the one who told us, obviously we took the name of the book, it’s such a fantastic name, and why she had Mrs as part of the title.
Jeanne Theohari…: And I think picking up what Yoruba is saying, most Black women of Rosa Parks’ age and era were denied that honorific. And so all of the people that we interviewed, that I interviewed called her Mrs. Parks in part because that was a sign of respect, a sign of anti-racism, a sign of getting out of the ways also that Rosa Parks had become this commodity that anybody felt like they could access. And part of adding the Mrs. I think in my book and I think in our film is about saying it’s degree of formality, a degree of she is not just ours to take. A degree of you need to… how should I say… to not just give her kind of a personal respect, but a respect of not feeling like she can just be used. People are constantly comparing themselves to Rosa Parks, and you could probably, Marc, run a whole five minutes of people saying this, This is the Rosa Parks of this, this is the Rosa Parks of that.”
Marc Steiner: Right, right, right.
Jeanne Theohari…: And so I think part of why I also used Mrs. Rosa Parks in the title was a way to say we don’t just get to fully just use her and not have to know who she is and not to give her the respect of knowing who she is.
Marc Steiner: I think that’s clearly important. We have a history in this country of Black women being only addressed by their first name, if that, and without any respect of Mrs, Dr, Miss, whatever that is. And so I think that’s really an important point, which is why I’m glad we did this. But let’s talk about the roots here. Her roots, she was destined in some ways to be an activist, given her grandfather, Raymond Parks. The memories of being with her grandfather when the KKK tried to intimidate their home and the role of self-defense, her mother pushing the value of education, going to Miss White’s school. Let’s just wrestle with that for a moment. Who she came from, what her roots were, that really speaks volumes about the kind of woman she became.
Yoruba Richen: Absolutely. One of the things that I think was so revelatory for me in reading the book and making the film was her family background. How her lifelong belief in self-defense came from, as you just mentioned, being with her grandfather warding off the KKK on her porch, and how she wanted to see her grandfather shoot a Kluxer, a Ku Klux Klan person. And it’s so important in terms of her forming who she was and also how we understand the Black Freedom Struggle. As Jeanne just mentioned a little while ago, it’s often reduced to nonviolent tactics, that that was the only strategy we had, and that’s not true. We wouldn’t have survived if that was the only strategy we have.
So I think it’s just such a really important point to understanding who Mrs. Parks is and what the freedom struggle is about. And then, it’s also so interesting looking at the history of interracial unions, of rape. Her father was very light-skinned, he could pass, but he didn’t. He was, as we say, a race man. He chose to identify as a Black person and to take that, which is not… there’s all kinds of things we could say about the history of passing and what that means and it’s fascinating, but those folks who could pass and chose to identify as Black and acknowledge their Blackness is super important. And it also tells us about, as you said, how it formed her as an activist and also about this country and what the Black Freedom Struggle has entailed, and the type of people who are part of it. So I just think those two things are just very salient for me in understanding who she is and what it means and what it says about our struggle in this country.
Jeanne Theohari…: Picking up what Yoruba was saying, for the McCauley family, to be a respectable person was not just how you comported yourself, but that you expected and at times had to demand respect for her per your person. So that’s a bedrock belief that her grandfather, that her mother had. So we have that stitched into a young Rosa McCauley. And then Marc, like you just mentioned, at age 18, she meets Raymond Parks. Raymond Parks is a politically active barber. He is, as she describes him, “The first real activist I ever met.” And so part of what Raymond does is he takes that inner militancy that she had that was in from her family, but shows her the possibility of collective struggle because Raymond Parks is one of the local activists working around organizing the Scottsboro case, nine young men who’d been arrested on a train riding the train for free. But then that charge gets changed to rape and all but the youngest, who’s 12, sentenced to death.
And so a group of local activists had grown in Alabama to try to defend the Scottsboro Boys from being executed, and one of those activists in 1931 was Raymond Parks, and she meets him in 1931. And so this opens the possibility not just of a personal demand for respect, but a collective struggle is possible. And so I think what that opens, and in the first years of their marriage, he is the more public activist and that’s going to change, and then she’ll become the more public activist. But fundamental to that relationship is this belief that another world is possible and that fight to do so. And so we see her come into the 1940s deciding, for instance, that here we have Black people serving in World War II like her younger brother, and yet not able to vote at home, not able to access the full rights of citizenship at home, and that scalds her. And so this is when she steps forward and joins the Montgomery NAACP and then works with E.D. Nixon to transform it into a much more activist branch.
Marc Steiner: For people to even stand up to the clan in Alabama then, Alabama is no walk through the park today, but then what they stood up for, it’s almost impossible to imagine that what that they actually could do that, that they did. Now let me play this quick clip about Recy Taylor. We’re going to jump into this.
Film Clips: I remember one case out in Abbeville, Alabama where my father and his family came from. Mrs. Recy Taylor was on her way home from church when she was kidnapped, forced into a car at gun and knife point, stripped of her clothing and raped by six white men on September 3rd, 1944. Then they put a blindfold over her, took her back and dumped her in the middle of town and said, “If you tell anybody, we’ll kill you.” She went promptly to the sheriff and told them, and they realize that nothing’s going to happen to these men. Rosa Parks hears about this from a white woman they know through Scottsboro organizing, so Rosa Parks and some of her comrades decide that they should have investigated.
Rosa Parks was sent to get the testimony. In those times, to go 100 miles from home, the sheriff is outside driving by. There he goes again. Well, there he is. I just only can imagine what that must have been like, sitting there actually having her tell that story and Rosa Parks writing down every word. It was incredibly dangerous for a Black woman to report, to detail that they had been the victims of sexual violence. For Ms. Parks, it was especially dangerous going into communities because she was seen as the problem. In collaboration with several other activists. They’d go as far as to take out an ad in the local newspaper in order to let people know what had taken place and to place pressure on law enforcement to do something.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk a bit about Recy Taylor ’cause I think in 1944, this becomes a seminal moment. How it shaped Mrs. Rosa Parks, how it shaped the movement, how it relates to Scottsboro, her husband seeking justice and all this, and her battle around it. Her battle. And to me, again, Yoruba, it became a central part of the film I felt, setting things up as it was in the book. So why don’t you both please just, again, I really wanted people to understand who this woman was, what happened to her, and what the response was.
Yoruba Richen: Well, I’ll just start by saying when I first found out about the Recy Taylor case and Mrs. Park’s role in investigating it, that was only a few years ago, and it was actually when another documentary came out about Recy Taylor. And this is literally only a few years ago, and I was amazed that I did not know about her work in the South investigating sexual crimes against Black women in the 1940s. You want to talk about risking your life for doing this kind of work? It’s incredible. Incredible, incredible.
And one, going back to your previous question of why she’s reduced to just the tired old lady on the bus, is that if you talk about self-defense and her belief in self-defense, if you talk about her work investigating sexual crimes against Black women, what happened to Recy Taylor, then you have to talk about these issues in our country. Then you actually have to talk about why we had to employ self-defense, what sexual violence was going on against Black women at the time, which as you know, it was the trope of the white women being raped again and Black men raping white women. That has been the trope in this country, when that actually was not the case. It was in fact the opposite most of the time. So to reduce her is you don’t have to talk about these issues in our country, so just mentioning that.
So when I found out about her work only a few years ago, we felt it was super important in the film to really expand on that and then to show how she had worked, continues to work on this issue. In the film, we also talk about the Joanne Little case and her involvement with that, which was also another case of a Black woman being raped this time by her jailer, and actually getting off. And she was for self-defense and Mrs. Parks was at the center of that movement, and this was in what, mid to late seventies. So her work around this issue is such an important part of who she is and it’s probably one of the most least known parts of Mrs. Parks work.
Marc Steiner: The fearless Mrs. Parks. Jeanne?
Jeanne Theohari…: And I think one of the things looking at the Recy Taylor case in the film does, and there’s a number of other cases that we couldn’t include in the film, she works on a case of Gertrude Perkins who had also been raped, also for her, there’s two sides of the coin. There’s both the lack of protection for Black people, and particularly Black women from rape and sexual assault, and then there’s the over-incarceration and over-policing of Black people, and particularly Black men for, as Yoruba was saying, the ostensible rape of white women, which often was either consensual relationships or other ways that people had just stepped out of line.
And so they’re working on other cases. One that really guts her as a teenager by the name of Jeremiah Reeves, who is similarly accused of rape. He’s having a consensual relationship with a young white woman. Sort of like the Central Park Five, he’s brought in, they sit him in the electric chair until he confesses. He recants that confession. He’s convicted, they fight all the way to the Supreme Court. He gets a new trial because he had an all-white jury. He gets a second all-white jury and he’s again, and so Mrs. Parks is working on these cases, and over and over they’re not getting justice. People aren’t indicted. Black people like Jeremiah Reeves, Jeremiah Reeves will be executed when he turns 22 in 1958.
So I think another part of the story that we miss when we tell that easy story of somehow she sits down and then people rise up is how much groundwork they lay and how hard it is, and they keep doing it and she keeps doing it. And she talks about over and over how hard it was to keep going, how much pressure there was on people not to, how you were treated if you were a troublemaker. And so I think part of the story we’re trying to tell in the book and in the film is that story of the length because if you actually look seriously at her life, the easiness of somehow you shine a light against injustice and injustice is changed, that’s not actually how it works.
And so you see over and over them trying things, and over and over them being discouraged and not getting any justice. And she’s traveling the state and she’s taking down testimony and she’s sending affidavits to the Department of Justice, and over and over it doesn’t do anything. And so understanding that one of Rosa Parks’ greatest superpowers is her ability to keep going while being discouraged, while not being able to see that it’s necessarily going to do anything but that you do it anyways, because I think the ways we tell the story of the civil rights movement is somehow that if you step forward that something will happen. And yet people like Rosa Parks and many other people she’s working with step forward time and again and risk their lives, and many of those times nothing happens and yet they keep doing it.
Yoruba Richen: And it’s just looking out from Mrs Park’s life, what it tells us about the Black Freedom Struggle in this country, again, often reduced to it started with Martin Luther King, then we had integration and everything was fine. This is why it’s so important to understand that the Black Freedom Struggle starts when we were brought here as slaves and continues to this day. And that idea of you keep going, even in the face of violence and lynching and not getting justice, is I think such important point and can hopefully give us some energy to continue on today.
Marc Steiner: Let me just say this way really quickly. Both the book and the film, and I love them both, that’s exactly what they do. When I finished that film again the other night, I want every younger person to watch because it gives you the energy saying, “The fight doesn’t just end with one thing, it keeps going. They push back, we lose, we fight, we don’t give up.” And that’s what I think is at the heart of all this is you don’t stop. You can’t stop, given what we face and what she faced, so I think that was really, really important. I want to talk a bit about this short clip here we’ll watch.
Film Clips: I always wanted to go along with him to meetings and hear discussions, and he always said it was too dangerous. The police were always on the lookout for people to intimidate. The police killed two men who were connected with the group Hawks was with, people Parks knew well. People were certainly concerned with being killed, being imprisoned. Raymond embraced armed self-defense during the Scottsboro campaign. He and I stayed up for many a night and didn’t sleep at all. When he left home, I did not know whether he’d be brought in or lying in the street dead someplace. And see, they always were armed. Wherever they were, they always had something on.
Marc Steiner: And I did that because I want to talk a bit about how Rosa Parks, as she moved on and also became much more politically astute and aware of things around her and her analysis of what was happening. She supported them all. King, Malcolm, even Robert F. Williams, the RNA, the Republican of New Africa. And for folks who haven’t seen the film, Robert F. Williams, there was a book he put out years back called The Negros With Guns in North Carolina where he defended people. He was a marine vet and ends up having to live in Cuba, but she supported them all. This is A, it’s part of to me the political complexity, the complexity of Mrs. Rosa Parks, it’s also about her holistic approach to what she sees around her. She doesn’t have this narrow, dogmatic vision. That says so much about her personality. And this time, let me start with Jeanne and then we’ll slide over to Yoruba just to talk a bit about what you both discovered in this process about that.
Jeanne Theohari…: Absolutely. I think one of the things when I was first doing research for the book that was so both exciting and groundbreaking was this second half of her life in Detroit. As we see in the film, she loses her job soon into the Montgomery bus boycott. Raymond loses his job, they never find steady work again. They’re getting death threats even after the boycott ends, and so they’re forced to leave Montgomery and they move to Detroit. So she spends the second half of her life in Detroit, what she calls the Northern Promised Land that wasn’t, as a growing movement is happening in Detroit as well. And Detroit is one of the centers of a whole range of Black Power organizing, from Black Power labor organizing to reparations to really interesting work around urban renewal, so many different approaches and she’s taking part in all of it.
One of my favorite things, I did a lot of talking to people in Detroit and Detroit activists to tell the second half of the story, and over and over they would say, “She was everywhere.” And Marc, like you’re saying, it was not an either or. It was not Malcolm or Martin or Ella Baker or Queen Mother Moore. It was a both and. It was by any means to show we are dissatisfied was her philosophy, and that she would go where people were doing something useful. One the things that she understood was that you don’t have movements without people being willing to show up and do the work of those movements, and so she does, and she is happy to have young people lead.
I think another way that we tend to pit the civil rights movement against the Black Power movement is that then these young radicals come up and then these people, and Parks embraces the vision and energy of young people both in Montgomery, but then when they moved to Detroit, in Detroit. One of my very most favorite moments in the film is when Dan Aldridge is talking about organizing for the People’s Tribunal in Detroit, which is a people’s hearing around police brutality when the cops are not indicted for the murder of these three Black teenagers. And they go to her right to ask her will she be on the jury?
This is really a controversial thing. They have to move it out of a theater they were going to have it in because the theater got so many death threats, the Michigan Bar Association threatens the licenses of the lawyers who participate. But they ask her, “Will you be on the jury? And Dan’s talking about how he’s nervous, he doesn’t think she’s going to go for it and she says, “Yes. I’m glad you asked.” So this sense of she will come and support, and other people would say she would say, “Yes, if I can be useful, I will come.” And so that ability also to let young people lead, and to let all of these new flowers of Black Power emerge, and for her to do so many of them. We see her in so many different, and we had to make some hard choices. And so there are things in the film, we don’t get to see her at the Black Panther School, even though there was great footage of that. And maybe Yoruba, you can-
Yoruba Richen: Yeah. Well, one thing just in terms of the filmmaking is that what we decided, and I think this was the right choice, is that we wanted to have Mrs. Park’s voice lead us through the film. Though we know what she looks like and that picture of her on the bus, many of us had not really heard her voice, and so we made a choice as filmmakers that she would lead us through. One of the very first things we did was start going through the archive of footage, audio tapes. Jeanne was obviously incredibly knowledgeable about where a lot of this stuff was. And also remember, we did this during we were still in COVID, and a lot of these places were still closed. One, I believe it was the local station in Montgomery, we never even got to access because they were just closed for COVID, so it was challenging in that way as well.
But luckily, so much of her archive was in the Library of Congress and had been cataloged, so that was really… Even though again, as we started, Library of Congress was not open every day. But we decided that that’s how we were going to tell the story, and so there were things that she did not talk about. reparations, for example. That was a real hard one for me to let go, her involvement with the reparations movement very early on and how prescient in terms of where we are today and talking about it and how it’s moved into the mainstream. But it was not something that she talked about or wrote about because we also used letters as well as from the film, and had the great actress, LisaGay Hamilton-
Marc Steiner: She was great. She was wonderful. Yeah.
Yoruba Richen: … read from her letters. So that was how we made those decisions of what to include and to not include.
Marc Steiner: So in the time we have left, there’s two areas I really want to hit because I know you’re both very busy and I know you have to get rolling soon, Yoruba, so I want to get through these quick things here. Just listen to this one clip.
Film Clips: I was with the March on Washington in 1963. That was a great occasion, but women were not allowed to play much of a role. The March on Washington is one example of how Black women are often marginalized in the civil rights movement. If you look at those who spoke, with the exception of Daisy Bates, who only spoke for a few minutes, the entire program was dominated by men. There was a tribute to women in which A. Philip Randolph, one of the organizers of the march, introduced some of the women who had participated in the struggle and I was one of them. They would have her stand up and wave at people. There’s Rosa Parks. She sat down on the bus in Montgomery. Wave at them, Rosa Parks, Mrs. Parks, and she’d sit down. They never said anything beyond that.
I was 15 when I went to the March on Washington. I stood there in awe of all of the people that had gathered, and I remember Lena Horne moving swiftly to the front of the stage, picked up a microphone and sung two syllables and they lingered in the air. There was a blanket of silence. Lena, she was taking Rosa Parks around to European satellite stations and saying, “This is the woman that started Montgomery.” So when I saw her doing that, I joined her. We was determined to see that Rosa Parks was recognized. There’s so much patriarchy built into the movement, like it’s built into so many institutions. Women raise most of the money, do most of the organizing, but when you go back and check the record, those who’ve been labeled presidents or directors or the leaders, the Grand Poobah largely have been men while the women have done the work. And Mother Parks, she was doing the work.
Marc Steiner: So these women talking about this, women were at the heart of the movement always. When I was a kid, my hero was the woman who I worked under, her name was Gloria Richardson. Without her, the Cambridge movement, and women were at the heart of the movement, but they were at the back of the bus when it came to history of the media and even in the movement itself. As your clips, you show the March on Washington and how it was all men speaking, except a couple of women got a chance to come up and say one or two words. So that’s a big part of this, and her role in that is really important to all this.
Yoruba Richen: Yeah. I feel like this is part of why I do the work that I do as a documentary filmmaker. It’s reclaiming Black women’s space in the struggle, in the movement, which has long been buried and passed over. So when I got the opportunity to be a part of this film and to help bring this film to life, I jumped on it after reading Jeanne’s book and it expanding my understanding of who Mrs. Parks was. And I knew it was such the right time to tell the story because we are just now in the last few years uncovering the essential role of Black women in the movement.
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Yoruba Richen: One of the things I think that the Black Lives Matter movement, where we know that Black women are at the front of it and are the main drivers of it, I think that also helped us to go back and to see what the role of Black women have been in the movement. And so again, in telling her story, I think we’re doing exactly that, and it’s such important work and so much more needs to be done. Gloria Richardson, you mentioned, I did not know who she was until making this film. And I will have to say, sadly, when we talked to I think it was her daughter or her granddaughter-
Jeanne Theohari…: We literally emailed her the day she died.
Yoruba Richen: The day she died.
Marc Steiner: Oh, really? Wow.
Jeanne Theohari…: Yep. I knew Ms. Richardson and we’d reached out, and literally we hear the next day, before it even breaks in the media, from her daughter that she had died the day before. Gloria Richardson is one of those people on the dais during the march on Washington. Gloria Richardson was, as you know, Marc, a household name in 1963. But now, only recently with Joseph Fitzgerald’s biography and some other work, we’re starting to reclaim that history. But Gloria Richardson talks about how both the marginalizing of women, and women had protested that marginalizing at the March on Washington, but also literally her and Lena Horne going around to international news stations and taking Mrs. Parks and saying, “This is where it began. You need to be interviewing her.”
And she believes that they get sent home early from the march because of that, that they’d kind of gone off script. And so they’re put in a cab, supposedly for their safety. She says they don’t even hear King’s speech, they’re sent home. So there’s that other story to tell, which is that more complex. And again, it is a story that people were contesting at the time. Mrs. Parks says to Daisy Bates that day that she wished this was not happening. People like Pauline Murray, people like Dorothy Height, people like Anna Arnold Hedgeman at the Times. Sometimes people are like, “Oh, we’re taking a lens that people didn’t have.” No, they had it. People are raising those questions, and so-
Yoruba Richen: That’s a really important point, Jeanne.
Marc Steiner: A powerful point. And I know we have to conclude this. I don’t want to conclude this, but we have to. I know I could go on, just have this conversation with you all forever, but I wanted to ask you both, because there’s so much more to cover on both the book and the documentary. What is the unsanitized version of Mrs. Rosa Parks that is really important for today’s world to understand and put their arms around? Let’s conclude with that. I just think it’s really important to get to, I cut all the other stuff out ’cause we have to get to someplace, and let’s get to that place. Yoruba, you looked like you were about to jump in, so please do.
Yoruba Richen: I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re getting at, but one of the things that we haven’t discussed yet is the ramifications to her life about what she did. So the unsanitized version of Mrs. Parks is that she was run out of Montgomery after what she did with the boycott and on the bus. She was threatened. Her life was threatened, her economic, she was fired from her job. She was not offered a job by the SCLC by King’s Organization, and Black people also shunned her because she was a troublemaker. So that’s the unsanitized version of Mrs. Parks, that she was the sacrifice and the risk that she took to make the stand that she did, and it wasn’t easy. Again, another version we have of our icons and heroes is they do this thing and then this great thing and then everything’s great, and that’s not the case.
Marc Steiner: No, it is not the case. It is not the case. Right.
Jeanne Theohari…: I think another aspect of the unsanitized version of Rosa Parks is if we see that one of her lifelong works is around challenging the injustices of the criminal legal system, challenging police brutality, challenging the way the law does not protect Black people, challenging the over-incarceration of Black people, if we see her working on reparations, if we see her doing all this anti-poverty work, if we see her challenging US foreign policy in Central America, in South Africa, after 9/11, we are forced to both confront where we are today in this country and what needs to happen.
But also, I think what some of the falseness we’ve seen around Black Lives Matter, where people are constantly are telling young people, “You should be more like the civil rights movement. You should be more like King and Parks,” and it’s just like, “You have no idea.” And this misuse of the Civil Rights movement against contemporary activism is both inaccurate, but it also I think misses how disruptive they were, how reviled they were, how red-baited they were, how they lost their jobs, so many of the things that actually happened to people. So now we tell this nice story of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King to make ourselves as a country, I think, feel good about our ability to change. And I think to tell an unsanitized version is to really challenge us both what we need to do in the present and also the ways that we treat our troublemakers today.
Marc Steiner: And long live the troublemakers. I think you’re exactly right. What I want to see is people say, “Yes, this is Rosa Mrs. Rosa Park. This is Martin Luther King. This is Malcolm X. This is who they really were. This is who Gloria Richardson is. Be them. Be them.” I think that I walked away from the film and the book just absolutely juiced. They’re both amazing pieces of work, and I just want to thank you both for being here today. And I encourage people, if you can get into Peacock, please watch this film, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks’s. It’s just an amazing piece of work, and read the book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. They’re both two powerful pieces of work for one of the most important people in our history, and I want to thank both of you for the work you do, and thank you both for taking the time here for The Real News and the Marc Steiner Show. Thank you both so much.
Jeanne Theohari…: Thank you.
Yoruba Richen: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: I hope you enjoyed our conversation today with Yoruba Richen and Jeanne Theoharis about The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. You can see the documentary on NBC Peacock and buy the book online or at your favorite bookstore. You deserve both to see the film and read this book. And once again, thank you all for joining us today. Please let me know what you thought about, what you heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get right back to you. And while you’re here, please go to http://www.therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly donor and become part of the future with us. So for Cameron Granadino, Kayla Rivara and Adam Coley and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care and take no shit.