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Don't Underestimate Rosa Parks

The coverage of her essay on a near-rape misses her powerful political theme of resistance.

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Rosa was then greeted by a white neighbor, Mr. Charlie, and realized that the purpose of Sam's visit was to grant Mr. Charlie access to Rosa. Mr. Charlie poured himself a glass of whiskey and attempted to put his arm around her waist. Rosa recoiled in fear and disgust. Mr. Charlie said not to worry, that he liked her and had money to give her.

The small Rosa was no match for the heavyset Mr. Charlie, and she was trapped. Sam had set her up, and she felt tricked and betrayed by "someone she trusted ... stripped naked of every shred of decency ... a commodity from Negro to white man."

She was terrified, and her mind turned to Psalm 27: "The lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?" Recalling her great-grandmother's abuse at the hands of her white master and the oppression of the nine Scottsboro boys who just been convicted on trumped-up rape charges, Rosa found her fear replaced by a "steel determination to stand completely alone against this formidable foe."

She resolved that she would never "yield to this white man's bestiality." He might kill her or rape her, but she vowed to put up a fight. As she kept moving around the living room, trying to stay out of arm's length, Rosa coolly began haranguing Mr. Charlie about the "white man's inhuman treatment of the Negro ... I asked him if the white woman were not good enough for him, and it was too bad if something was wrong with them."

On and on, Rosa spoke, determined to resist Mr. Charlie's advances. "I taunted him about the supposed white supremacy: the white man's law drawing the color line of segregation. I would stay within the law -- on my side of the line." Standing up for herself as a respectable young woman, she informed him she would not go with anyone she could not marry, throwing the fact that interracial marriage was illegal in Alabama in his face. When Mr. Charlie told her that color did not matter to him and that he had gotten permission from Sam to be with her, she told him that Sam did not own her.

She hated Sam as much as she hated Mr. Charlie. Again, Mr. Charlie offered her money or to set her up with Sam. She told him there was nothing he could do to get her consent -- that "if he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body, he was welcome but he would have to kill me first."

The story finishes with Rosa sitting down and reading the newspaper trying to ignore Mr. Charlie while he sits across from her. "I said he couldn't pay me or fool me, or frighten me. At long last Mr. Charlie got the idea that I meant no, very definitely no."

The essay (whether autobiographical, semiautobiographical or metaphoric) affirms the power of resistance and her refusal to be cowed or defeated. "He need not think that because he was a low-down dirty dog of a white man and I was a poor defenseless, helpless colored girl, that he could run over me."

This is an angry, deeply political Rosa Parks. Accustomed to lionizing the quiet heroine of the bus boycott, we rarely treat her as a political thinker. The substance of her ideas, often lost in the memorializing of her, once again was in the background of this week's coverage. Amid all the attention, many people have been speaking for and about her, rather than listening to what she actually said. 

Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at Brooklyn College. Her biography of Rosa Parks will be published by Beacon Press next year.