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The life and activism of Rosa Parks beyond the Montgomery bus boycott

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Many know Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, but few know the years of dedicated activism that led up to that moment. CUNY Brooklyn College professor and author of "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks," Jeanne Theoharis, shines a light on Parks' lifelong dedication to civil rights. Theoharis spoke to CBS' Tanya Rivero about the importance of understanding her full story.

Video Transcript

TANYA RIVERO: Black History Month is a time to celebrate and honor the leaders who pushed us closer to achieving civil rights following slavery. One of those iconic leaders is Rosa Parks. She's best known for her role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Her refusal to give up her seat to a white man sparked a protest that would make its way to the Supreme Court.

But her activism did not start in 1955. Rosa Parks was an activist for decades leading up to that moment. Much of what we learn about her erases her work outside of Montgomery. But a new narrative was written about Rosa Parks following her boycott, and one woman is trying to set the record straight.

Joining me now is Jeanne Theoharis. Jeanne is a political science professor at Brooklyn College and the author of several books on civil rights, including "The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks." Jeanne, welcome. It's great to have you with us. Why have we, and when I say we, I mean the collective we as a culture, chosen the Rosa Parks bus boycott moment as the way to remember her and not her decades of work that led up to that moment?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: So I think we honor Rosa Parks in ways that are easy, that are-- that give us a nice happy ending, right. We tend to tell a story that's about a woman sits down on the bus, then the community rises up, and then there's success and it vaults Martin Luther King into leadership, and it's all put in the past. And so it both doesn't link to the struggles we face today around racial inequality. It makes it seem like we've fixed this problem.

It-- it makes it seem like while it was hard, it was fairly finite. When the actual story of Rosa Parks begins, like you were saying, decades earlier, it extends for 40 years after her bus stand, it's both in Montgomery and Detroit. And it covers much more than just bus segregation, right. She-- she's active around school and housing segregation, around criminal justice, many, many other issues that we continue to face today.

TANYA RIVERO: So yes, tell us a little bit more about that. We know that Ms. Parks took her efforts to Detroit to combat racism in the North. Give us some insight into what her activism looked like in Detroit and why she made it a point to address northern states.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: So just to back up a little bit, Rosa Parks, one other part of the story that we don't know very much is the kind of suffering that Rosa Parks faces and her family faces after she makes her bus stand. So she gets fired about five weeks after her bus stand. Her husband loses his job. They never find steady work ever again, and, in fact, continue to get death threats and continue to struggle to find work, even after the bus boycott's successful end 382 days later.

And so eight months after the boycott ends, the Parks family is forced to leave Montgomery. And they moved to Detroit. Her brother's living in Detroit. Her cousins are living in Detroit. So she moves to Detroit. And so she will spend the second half of her life fighting the racism of the North.

Because while the public signs of segregation are thankfully gone, what she says is the systems of segregation in housing and schooling, job discrimination, police brutality that they leave in Montgomery, they find again in Detroit. And so she's going to spend the second half of her life joining forces with activists in Detroit and across the country amidst a growing Black Power movement that she takes part in, fighting that racism, really till the end of her life in 2005. And yet we tend to trap her story back there in 1955 when she makes a very courageous stand on the bus, but it's one of many, many courageous stands she makes across her life.

TANYA RIVERO: And she was also very active, if I'm not wrong, in the NAACP youth chapter. Did she specifically look to children and teens as the leaders and future leaders of the movement toward civil rights? And if you were to sort of step back, how do you think she would look upon leaders of the Black Lives movement today?

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Right. Right. So she gets her start more than a decade, really two decades before her bus stand, she gets active around the Scottsboro case. People might remember that's nine young Black men who are wrongfully accused of rape and tried and sentenced to death. And so a local movement grows in Alabama in the early 1930s to protect and defend the Scottsboro Boys.

She meets and falls in love with her husband who's working on the Scottsboro case, and so she joins him. And again, this is in the early 1930s. By the 1940s, she wants to become more active. She joins the local NAACP, and she, with a small group of other activists, will work, then, throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s trying to press for voter registration, trying to work on criminal justice issues, both issues where Black women have been raped and yet find no justice under the law, and then also cases where Black men are being wrongfully accused.

So they're working on all of this stuff. And-- and largely, as she would put it, they're trying, but all our efforts seemed in vain, because over and over and over, they try, and over and over and over, their efforts are thwarted. So by the early 1950s, she's growing quite discouraged. She's getting, as we might call it, burned out.

And so she begins to put her hopes in the energy, and really in the militancy of young people. And so she founds, really refounds the youth branch of the chapter that had gone kind of defunct, and, again, cultivates a small group of young activists to take bigger stands against segregation in Montgomery around education. And then we'll see that again if we fast forward to the mid and late 1960s, she's joining with young Black Power activists in Detroit around issues like police brutality.

And so over and over across her life, we see Rosa Parks gravitating towards young people, in part because of their spirit, of their energy, and of their militancy, and growing kind of discouraged in what she would refer to as the complacency of young people-- no, no, sorry, the complacency of her peers, of adults, and so putting her hopes in young people.

And so the book that you just flashed on the screen is actually a young adult version of the biography I wrote of Rosa Parks a handful of years ago that we've now adapted for young people for sort of junior high, high school students 12 and up to really bring this history, this much fuller and more accurate history of Rosa Parks to young people, because so many of my students-- I teach college-- feel so cheated when they get to me that-- that they learned about Rosa Parks, but they hadn't really learned who she was, hadn't really learned the accurate, fuller story of her.

And part of that story is how much she loves not just young people in some sort of cliche, you know, children of the future way, but loves the-- the political spirit of young people. And so if we look at her life, if we see the work that she's doing around things like criminal justice and police brutality, if we see how much she loves the spirit of young people, I think we can see where she would be standing today and how much she would be appreciating the young people of Black Lives Matter.

TANYA RIVERO: Well, Jeanne Theoharis, thank you so much for giving us a more complete portrait of the incredible activist Rosa Parks. We appreciate it.

JEANNE THEOHARIS: Thank you for having me.