You probably think you know the story of Rosa Parks, the seamstress who refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., 60 years ago—on Dec. 1, 1955—and thus galvanized the bus boycott that was a defining moment in the American civil rights movement. You also probably think you know what she looks like — from her mugshot most likely, or a picture of her being fingerprinted, or perhaps a later photo of her seated, looking out the window, on an integrated bus.
But those three images are often taken out of context and, more importantly, only tell part of the story, according to historian Jeanne Theoharis, distinguished professor of political science at Brooklyn College and author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
The mugshot and finger-printing images often used to illustrate stories about her stand on the bus were actually taken months afterward, after she presented herself for arrest when Montgomery criminalized the carpools that the city’s black community was using to orchestrate the bus boycott. The bus image meanwhile was staged at a later date; the man sitting in the seat behind her is a reporter.
While it’s not good that many people might assume those first two images came from Dec. 1, 1955—when there were no reporters or cameras around—the bigger issue, Theoharis says, is that they show her as a passive, quiet, accidental player in the civil rights struggle rather than the life-long activist she really was. And the problems with the pictures can be seen as a metaphor for the problems with the whole story of Rosa Parks.
At this point, many people do know that Parks was active with her local NAACP chapter and was not merely a tired woman who wanted to rest her feet. But, Theoharis explains, even that expanded version of the Rosa Parks story is incomplete—and the flawed story that is often celebrated by the nation has implications that echo through the six decades between then and now. It is, Theoharis says, a “fable” purposefully designed to communicate a lesson to Americans, even if that lesson doesn’t do justice to the truth.
“I purposefully use the word fable and not myth because I think fables give morals, they tell us things that we’re supposed to learn. And that’s why I think it’s so dangerous,” she says. “These words trap her.”
The fable dates all the way back to the beginning of Parks’ stand. Segregationist citizens of Montgomery began to spread rumors about Parks shortly after her arrest: that she was from out of town, she was really Mexican, she was a Communist, even that she had a car so she didn’t need the bus. So positioning Parks as a meek Christian entangled in a sudden mess rather than a woman who had been an activist for decades was a savvy move by her allies.
But that decision, expedient at the time, obscures the true extent of her courage on Dec. 1, sixty years ago. “Perhaps the most courageous thing about what she does that night is the fact that there’s nothing to suggest that night that making a stand will do anything different than it had the previous times…and there’s much to suggest that something bad will happen,” she explains.
In fact, Parks had already been kicked off the bus by the very same driver in the past, and she also knew that being arrested, as an African American woman in the South, was extremely dangerous. And even though the bus boycott was ultimately successful, it did hurt Parks: her health suffered and her family was nearly crippled economically. Theoharis says her personal writings show that she felt “lonely and crazy” during this period.
It’s possible Parks was inspired by the news that the men who had lynched Emmett Till would go free. Thanks in part to a large archive of Parks’ papers that have only recently been made available to researchers, Theoharis was able to draw the connection between the two events. (The newly available papers are incorporated in the revised edition of Theoharis’ book, which was published last week.) Parks was driven not just by the violence against Till, says the historian, but the way the legal system didn’t address it; it’s the same kind of frustration that motivates today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
That’s the trouble with positioning Rosa Parks as a relic of history, Theoharis says, rather than as a defining figure in a continuum that stretches in both directions. “We fall back on stock images. We fall back on the ways we’re comfortable with her, as a quiet seamstress in a movement that was long ago,” Theoharis says. “But Rosa Parks at the end of her life was saying there’s still more work to be done.”
Read more about Rosa Parks, here in the TIME Vault: Double-Edged Blade
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