Among the textbook images of Rosa Parks is a mug shot taken by the Montgomery, Alabama, police. She sits, slightly off-center in front of a blank wall, holding a placard with the number 7053.
Her act of resistance on a city bus launched the Montgomery bus boycott and contributed to the public profile of a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. In plenty of history classes, what is taught about Parks stops there.
But too many know too little about Parks herself, the 42 years before or the lifetime after that crucial moment. Indeed, the well-known image isn’t from her initial arrest but from a subsequent protest in 1956 as part of the boycott. In the oversimplification of what we learn of history, it can be seen as representing a one-time, Dec. 1, 1955, act of civil disobedience.
Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton hope to broaden, deepen and set right the understanding of Parks’ legacy. The directors of the recently released documentary “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” say that they, too, had much to learn, and they believe the film can teach others unexpected things about the woman sometimes known as “the mother of the civil rights movement.” Their movie is based on the biography of the same name by Jeanne Theoharis and was executive produced by Soledad O’Brien.
In addition, the Zinn Education Project is making teaching resources available that were inspired by Theoharis’ book and has provided free copies of the book’s “young readers” edition for curricular use by teachers and school librarians.
All of it contributes to a fuller, more accurate appreciation of a fierce activist mischaracterized as playing a meek and momentary role in the civil rights movement. Richen and Hamilton spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne in October. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: I suspect that you entered the making of this movie with some idea of Rosa Parks as ideal and icon. What shifted for you?
Yoruba Richen: The first thing that was amazing to me — that there hadn’t been a full-length documentary about her before.
And then reading the book and finding out that her commitment to the Black freedom struggle had spanned so many years, from both before the boycott and after. And it was not just to integration. We have a line in the film where she says, “I was never an integrationist,” so I use the term specifically — “the Black freedom struggle.” And the myriad ways in which she sought to achieve it, through self-defense, through working with Dr. King and marching, through voting, through her advocacy of Black women and revealing Black women [as victims of] sexual violence — that multiple-strategy approach is really something that I did not know about her.
Johanna Hamilton: Literally everything surprised me, aside from the boycott. I mean, you name it, from age 6 to 92. Our first rough cut was close to three hours long. And then we just had to pull back. People were constantly asking what we cut out. There’s so much amazing stuff — the Gary Convention, the Poor People’s Campaign — she was everywhere. So this fierceness. And it was a quietness, I think, that was interpreted as a meekness. There was a boldness; she was a visionary.
F&L: What was the source of misunderstanding her? We so often get history wrong. What happened to her story, and who took control of it?
YR: It made some people uncomfortable. We see this not only with Rosa Parks but with many of our leaders. There is a tradition in our country of getting history wrong. And then with Rosa Parks, the fact that she was a woman in a movement that was very patriarchal. She was not boastful or was not hogging the spotlight. Sometimes that doesn’t serve you as well. And I think “the nice old lady who was tired” is a fantasy that we want to believe because she took one stance and then everything was fine.
If we actually go into her story and really understand who she is, then we have to say a lot more about this country, about the long struggle for civil rights. And it’s not something that we talk about.
JH: Probably my favorite quote in the film is from JoAnn Watson, who talks about how women always carry these movements forward, but if you look at history, it’s the presidents, the vice presidents you see. Inevitably, it’s the women who are behind [the action]. Isn’t that just always the case?
It’s the men with guns who get to write the history in terms of peace agreements. Here in the civil rights movement, the men take center stage. For Yoruba and I, it was amazing in centering her story to be able to pay a minuscule amount of homage to so many of the other women. We always felt like it was insufficient. We would’ve loved to include more about Septima Clark, some of her really strong mentors.
We were just constantly having to make a film that was, not palatable, but just at least digestible, so we could put it in a classroom, we could put it in front of a TV audience, to make some of these names household names. And we have the educational curriculum, so hopefully some of that can be accomplished there too.
During February [Black History Month], every school kid knows her story. But in paying close attention now, we give her more than that five minutes of tokenistic attention, saying the whole thing matters. The whole narrative really matters. Hopefully, she gets a different place to stand and not sit.
F&L: She was not just the person who started the Montgomery boycott. She was actively engaged with the NAACP. She was opposed to the Vietnam War, patriarchal issues, sexual violence against women. She supported reparations, divestment from South Africa. Can you talk about how you saw her formed into this multifaceted person?
JH: One of the many things that surprised me was that both sets of grandparents were born into slavery. Her [maternal] grandfather was the son of a plantation owner. His mother was a housekeeper. He looked white, and so he could pass as white. She speaks so eloquently in her different interviews about how he was incredibly fierce and incredibly brave, and he would risk his life by just standing up to white people all the time. [She speaks of] sitting out on the porch with him when he is defending their house against a possible KKK invasion, defending their churches.
The grandfather wanted both of his daughters to have jobs. Rosa’s mother was a teacher, taught her how to read and write and was constantly on the lookout for both her and her brother in terms of education.
YR: I can only imagine if some of your earliest memories are sitting out with your grandfather with his gun, protecting his house, warding off the KKK and the terrorism that you saw as a child — how that shapes what you do and who you are and what kind of stance you’ll take and how outspoken you’ll be. She was born one generation after slavery ended. I can only imagine. I think all those things shaped her.
The fierceness of her family and education — we talked about Miss White’s School, where she said she learned about the dignity of her people and loved to read. I think it’s all those forces, and the church as well, all those forces combined.
Then she went up North to Detroit and saw that it was a promised land that wasn’t. So she kept fighting; she kept up the struggle. She was a fierce admirer of Dr. King, of the Black Panthers, of the Republic of New Afrika, of these anti-Vietnam War folks, anti-apartheid folks. [Raymond] Parks, her husband, who was the first activist she ever met. I think all those people influenced her and influenced her stance and her strategy.
F&L: One of the groups she was particularly interested in was young people. Can you talk about what you took away from how she led them and how others saw her as a leader?
YR: I think one of our interviewees says it really well — it was about passing the torch. And the training, it was always about the next generation. I also think she knew that it was a long struggle, that she wasn’t going to be here forever. That we had to keep up the fight, and that these young people were the ones to do it. It was always a part of her work and, I think, what she saw as part of her work and part of her being a leader.
JH: I was just struck when you were talking, remembering an anecdote that the weekend before the boycott she was organizing with her youth group at home. She was preparing for a conference, and she was a little despondent because the group turnout was a little low, and she was like, “What’s happening?”
Meanwhile, all the kids were out handing out leaflets about the boycott coming on Monday. And we know the rest.
There’s a perseverance to her, obviously, and there’s a courage and bravery to that, to literally day after day after day continuing that struggle. The never, ever giving up, which is remarkable. She trusted younger people.
If we actually go into her story and really understand who she is, then we have to say a lot more about this country, about the long struggle for civil rights.
F&L: Some of the adjectives that have been used to describe her in the film, I was not expecting — “soldier,” “radical,” “freedom fighter,” “militant.” But I would also add the word “prophet.” She was always so forward-looking, and there was no sense for me that she ever thought she was done.
YR: I think that she was not satisfied, and she was looking into the future of where we were as a nation and where we were in terms of the freedom struggle. She always knew that there was more work to be done and that we couldn’t lie back on our laurels.
Such a clear instance of it is they win the fight in Montgomery, which is incredible, but then there is the backlash that happens to her. She had to leave Montgomery and go to Detroit, and she sees what’s happening in the North and that this is not a fight that’s just about the South — seeing that and continuing the fight till her death.
Beneath the icon is somebody even more impressive. I mean, that maybe sounds trite, but it is kind of remarkable.
JH: [“Prophet”] is such a beautiful word that hadn’t occurred to us. It’s just a beautiful way to describe her. I was reminded of something that, again, is not in the film. People she came to know in Detroit who were members of the Church of the Black Madonna said that she drew on the notion that the church is all connected — church and social issues, everything is connected. We’re all not separated; whether it’s social justice or religion, it’s all one.
One of our other interviewees said that growing up in the church, religion infused her whole being, literally and metaphorically, from the elegance of always dressing in her Sunday best to how she conducted herself.
F&L: This documentary coming in this particular moment, when it feels like there is such a pushback against authenticity and accuracy in history, and honoring people who did so much — we see this in some of the same issues she stood firmly and valiantly for. Could you talk about what it feels like to have this movie happening in October 2022?
YR: I have a theory that films find their time and their place in terms of when. Sometimes it can take 10 years to make a film; sometimes it can take a year, like it did with us. We made it very quickly. But it certainly feels that it’s the right time for this film to be out, because of exactly what you’re talking about.
We have a really big education campaign, which is getting a curriculum about her and about the movement into schools. Jeanne, the author of the book, also has a young adult book that we’re giving away to schools that request it.
It’s incredible. I mean, I feel really good that we are able to counter in some way this assault on history and on truth that we’re seeing from the right.
JH: Yoruba and I definitely felt that there was a need to make it urgent and feel very contemporary. It just does. Hopefully, it inspires people. We’re standing at this momentous and perilous time in America and other places around the world for democracy, and we definitely had to make choices, because Mrs. Parks was so passionate about a range of social justice issues. We decided to focus on voting rights over perhaps some criminal justice reform or other abolitionist movement that she was also part of, precisely for that reason.
F&L: What else would you like folks to know as they come to this interview and then come to the movie?
JH: Beneath the icon is somebody even more impressive. I mean, that maybe sounds trite, but it is kind of remarkable.
YR: Hopefully, we can have some measure of inspiration from her life and the understanding that it’s the long haul, the long fight, in this time when things can feel very dire.