Tired of Giving in

Eric Foner

  • Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: The Life of Rosa Parks by Douglas Brinkley
    Weidenfeld, 248 pp, £12.99, January 2001, ISBN 0 297 60708 1

On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black woman who had just completed her day’s work in a department store in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a city bus to a white passenger, as required by municipal law. The incident sparked a year-long bus boycott, the beginning of the modern phase of the civil rights revolution. And it made Parks, the ‘seamstress with tired feet’ (she was a tailor’s assistant), an international symbol of ordinary blacks’ determination to resist the daily injustices and indignities of the Jim Crow South.

Today, with the birthday of Martin Luther King a national holiday and Alabama cities like Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery competing to attract tourists by highlighting their role in the struggle for racial justice, Rosa Parks has become a national icon second only to King himself. Highways, city streets and subway stations have been named in her honour. A black fisherman in Alaska refers to himself, according to USA Today, as ‘the Rosa Parks of the Bering Sea’. In the past few years, Parks has been awarded a Congressional medal, been invited to sit beside the First Lady during a State of the Union address by President Clinton, and been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most significant individuals of the 20th century. Last December, at the street corner where she was arrested, Montgomery’s city fathers opened the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, complete with a sculpture of Parks in her bus seat with space for visitors to have their pictures taken sitting alongside her bronze replica.

Douglas Brinkley’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is the first serious biography of Parks. It is also part of a new series of brief lives of famous individuals written by authors not previously known for expertise on the subjects of their books. Brevity and the often surprising match between subject and author make the series distinctive. The ‘concept’, as its editor James Atlas explained to me a few years ago, is to produce books that airline passengers can read on a flight from New York to San Francisco and finish before they reach the Golden Gate. Given the entertainment options available at 35,000 feet this is not an exacting standard. Most books in the series, including Brinkley’s, have more than met it.

A historian whose previous work has concentrated on Presidential politics and American foreign relations, Brinkley faced a difficult challenge in approaching the life of Parks, and not only because this is his first book on the struggle for racial justice. Despite her status as the ‘mother of the civil rights movement’, as a world-historical figure Parks ranks somewhat below Joan of Arc, Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci or Mao, who also figure in the series. Parks is important because of her connection with a mass movement, yet the series format does not lend itself to a life-and-times approach. Brinkley is a skilled writer who has combed the archives for information about Parks and the society in which she lived, and he succeeds in placing her life before the bus boycott in its political and social context. But her subsequent career and the fate of the movement she helped to inspire are treated in cursory fashion.

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