Who Rosa Parks Was, Not Just What She Meant
By Emmarie Huetteman
WASHINGTON — Newly released papers offer a look at the feisty spirit of the seemingly mild Rosa Parks, who helped set off one of the seminal events of the civil rights movement, the Montgomery bus boycott.
“I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore,” Mrs. Parks wrote.
The writing was part of thousands of her personal letters, photographs and other items that became accessible to researchers for the first time this week as the Library of Congress opened the largest collection of the civil rights icon’s documents.
“I think that she felt, perhaps, limited in a way by the iconic image of Rosa Parks as the woman who refused to give up her seat in the bus,” said Adrienne Cannon, an African-American history and culture specialist at the Library of Congress. “This significance that she had in the public sphere did not fully describe who she was, and I think that she perhaps wanted us to know her true self.”
About two dozen items will be on display to the public in March, with several also included through mid-September in the library’s exhibition “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” The library also plans to digitize the collection over the 10 years it is on loan from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, hoping to post as much of it as possible online, depending on copyright negotiations.
Wayne State University has a smaller collection of Mrs. Parks’s manuscripts, which she gave to the college in 1976, focusing primarily on her work as an activist while living in Detroit.
After the death of Mrs. Parks in 2005, the collection, which includes about 7,500 manuscripts and 2,500 photographs, sat in storage at an auction house for years awaiting a buyer. A legal battle between her family and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which she founded, kept the documents from scholars.
Julian Bond, the civil rights activist and former chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., who gave a eulogy at Mrs. Parks’s memorial, called it “a crime” that it had taken so long for the papers to be released.
“She can now be seen as a whole person, a person fully engaged in the politics of her era, a person unafraid to associate with figures on the left, and a serious thinker,” he wrote in an email.
The papers, which include records revealing her trouble with ulcers and her struggle with poverty, also show how much Mrs. Parks suffered even as she earned the respect of so many, said Jeanne Theoharis, a political-science professor at Brooklyn College who wrote “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.”
Ms. Theoharis examined the collection last month while working on an article for the Library of Congress.
“There was just this really palpable sadness of getting to see what a toll and what a sacrifice, and that it’s not just for a year,” Ms. Theoharis said.
Items like the flashcard with the Spanish word for “pants” nestled in the copy of the New Testament she kept in her purse, and the letter to her brother musing about her interviews in publications like Life magazine — “I hope you get a copy,” she wrote — will also offer researchers a glimpse of her personality. Others, like a poll tax receipt, will give them a broader sense of the time.
“You just get to have this view of American history in the 20th century, just because she’s taking part in so much of it, she’s going to so many things, she’s involved in so many things,” Ms. Theoharis said. “She’s just kind of everywhere.”
It is a momentous occasion that even Mrs. Parks considered, according to thoughts captured in her careful cursive handwriting in one of the collection’s manuscripts.
“Is it worthwhile to reveal the intimacies of the past life?” she wrote. “Will the people be sympathetic or disillusioned when the facts of my life are told? Would they be interested or indifferent? Will the results be harmful or good?”
The collection joins countless others at the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, which include the records of the N.A.A.C.P. and the National Urban League and the papers of Thurgood Marshall, Susan B. Anthony and Abraham Lincoln.