The Life and Activism of Rosa Parks: A CBFS Interview

Rosa Parks at the International House of Beauty salon, Detroit, Michigan (Library of Congress)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Robyn Spencer-Antoine with Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. The Fall 2023 season of Conversations in Black Freedom Studies will begin on Thursday October 5th with a screening of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks followed by a discussion with a writer and director of the film.

Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Her book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, won a 2014 NAACP Image Award. She is the author of A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. She and Komozi Woodard have edited several collections of scholarship on the Black Freedom Struggle, including Freedom North: Black Freedom Struggles Outside of the South, 1940-1980, Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America, Want to Start A Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle with Dayo Gore, and The Strange Careers of the Jim Crow North: Segregation and Struggle Outside of the South with Brian Purnell. Theoharis is the author of numerous books and articles on the civil rights and Black Power movements, the politics of race and education, social welfare and civil rights in post-9/11 America. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, The Nation, Slate, Salon, the Intercept, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her most recent book, written with Brandy Colbert, is The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks: Young Readers Edition.

Yoruba Richen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has been featured on multiple outlets, including Netflix, MSNBC, FX/Hulu, HBO, and PBS. Her most recent film The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and won a Peabody Award. It is currently streaming on Peacock. Other recent work includes the Emmy-nominated films American Reckoning (Frontline), How It Feels to Be Free (American Masters), The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show (Peacock), and Green Book: Guide to Freedom (Smithsonian Channel). She directed an episode of the award-winning series Black and Missing for HBO and High on the Hog for Netflix. Her film, The Killing of Breonna Taylor won an NAACP Image Award and is streaming on HULU. Her previous films, The New Black and Promised Land won multiple festival awards before airing on PBS’s Independent Lens and P.O.V. Yoruba is a past Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow and she won the Creative Promise Award at Tribeca All Access. She was a Sundance Producers Fellow and Women’s Fellow and is a recipient of the Chicken & Egg Breakthrough Filmmaker’s Award. Yoruba is the founding director of the Documentary Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

Johanna Hamilton is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her previous work includes “1971″, which chronicled the break-in at an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania that revealed the existence of COINTELPRO; “Wrong Man,” a Starz series on wrongful convictions; “Parched,” a National Geographic Channel series about the politics of water; and “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which profiled a group of visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia.

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS): What surprises, challenges, or joys did you encounter as you translated the biography of Rosa Parks from a book into a documentary film?

Jeanne Theoharis (JT): My greatest joy in getting to translate my book into a film was how much we get to hear Rosa Parks. We get to hear her tell her own story and we get to hear her political ideas in her own voice and phrasings. While most people could easily identify Mrs. Parks in a photo, most of us can’t call up her voice in our heads. And the documentary changes that. We also get to see her across her life–in her young 42-year-old self when she makes her bus stand as well as outside of the South. When you think of Black Power, when you think of Northern racism, you don’t always think about Parks and the film helps bring that visually into focus.

Yoruba Richen (YR): The big challenge in translating the book was having to choose what parts of her story we could and couldn’t include. In a film we not only have time constraints, but we have to be able to visually tell the story for the screen. This limited the amount of context and information we could put in the film, and we had to make hard choices around which parts of her story to include. There were many joys in making the film—highlights include meeting and interviewing Mrs. Parks family members and finding the footage and audio to tell the story in her own words.

Johanna Hamilton (JH): As Yoruba outlined, the biggest challenge was what to include and what to exclude. Our first cut was about 3 hours long! We were told it needed to be half the length. While we all felt Mrs. Parks’s story is worthy of a mini-series, we had the budget for one feature-length film. Another persistent challenge was the lack of early archival material. Just a tiny handful of photographs exist of Mrs. Parks’s early life. Later in her life, however, we were able to excavate some hidden archival gems. Hearing her voice in the interviews where she is asked questions that go beyond the bus boycott were a consistent joy, along with re-examining some really famous pictures where Mrs. Parks appears on the edge of frame. Re-centering her was simply wonderful.

CBFS: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks challenges many myths about her life and politics. How has the film been used as a pedagogical resource at a time when Black studies is under attack?

JT: We were determined to make an educational intervention with the film. With support from the Ford Foundation, I assembled a team of educators–Say Burgin, Jesse Hagopian, Cierra Kaler-Jones, Ursula Wolfe Rocca, and Tiffany Patterson—to craft a suite of curriculum with Zinn Education Project to wrap around the film and the YA version of my book that’s now available on the web for anyone to use and adapt. The ways Rosa Parks is regularly taught and memorialized –trapped on the bus as an accidental, one-day heroine–is already a potent example of what happens when history is watered down and distorted. So, teaching her full history offers the chance to see the Black freedom struggle across the 20th century and a much fuller, more accurate history of this country.

CBFS: What does the life of Rosa Parks teach us about our present political moment and organizing today?

YR: I think Rosa’s story and activism shows us that even in times when it feels like the gains that we have made politically are being taken away (the one step forward, two steps backwards thing) and, that as a country, we are restricting rights as opposed to expanding them—we can’t give up. Rosa Parks’s life was a testament to having perseverance, never being satisfied with incremental change, and looking at a myriad of strategies when it comes to fighting for justice.

 JH: That the old adage, attributed to Nelson Mandela—who, as we show in the film, was deeply moved and inspired by Mrs. Parks—holds true: it always seems impossible until it’s done. We were all driven by a desire to make the film feel urgent and relevant to today. There was no dearth of material given the challenges that persist. Hopefully we succeeded. It was important to us that, all while outlining the immense difficulties Mrs. Parks faced at every stage of her life, this was a story that would be inspiring for activists today. By showing, for the first time, the breathtaking breadth of her courage and perseverance, we hope that will energize folks in a hopeful, resilient way.

JT: One of the greatest lessons I take from Rosa Parks is her ability to be discouraged and still keep going, to make another step and another without knowing if any step will do anything. Reading her personal writings (some of which we see in the film), you can see how demoralized she feels, how sometimes crazy she feels. And yet over and over, for two decades in Montgomery and four decades in Detroit, she keeps freedom-fighting. A second aspect is her expansive politics. It’s not either Martin or Malcolm, Ella Baker or Queen Mother Moore, it’s both/and. She’s for “any move to show we are dissatisfied.” Finally, Rosa Parks spent her life challenging the injustices of the criminal legal system–from police brutality to the over-incarceration of Black people to the ways the law didn’t protect Black life. Watching her as a middle-aged person during Black Power provides an example for how middle-aged people can interact with youth movements like Stop Cop City today. “If I can be helpful, I will come,” she said over and over. She wasn’t trying to tell these young militants what to do or “the right way.” She was supporting and uplifting their efforts. That is where I believe she would be today.

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Lucien Baskin

Lucien Baskin is a doctoral student in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center, a fellow with Conversations in Black Freedom Studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and an instructor of Sociology at John Jay College. Their work focuses on social movements, the Black Radical Tradition, abolition, and education. Much of Lucien’s work is rooted in the City University of New York, including a dissertation project on radical organizing at CUNY in the era following Open Admissions. They are also at work on a project about Stuart Hall’s educational and pedagogical work and the institutional contexts of his radical intellectualism. They organize with Free CUNY and the Cops Off Campus Coalition, and have written about campus policing and abolitionist organizing in the university, including “Looking to Get Cops Off Your Campus? Start Here.” with Erica Meiners in Truthout, and “Abolitionist Study and Struggle in and beyond the University” in the Abusable Past.