Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Meeting the Rosa parks we never knew -- Feb. 20, 2020 column



Contrary to popular myth, Rosa Parks was not physically tired the afternoon she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.

“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” she wrote years later. Nor was she old, though “some people have an image of me being old then.”

It was Dec. 1, 1955, and Parks was 42. There were no TV cameras, reporters or cell phones on the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama, so over time she wrote letters and notes in her neat cursive, correcting misconceptions about what happened and recording the thoughts and events of her long and consequential life.

She was not, as is often told, sitting in the bus section reserved for white passengers that day. She was in the first row of the “colored” section, but in the segregated South blacks were required to move to the back of the bus if whites needed a seat. When passengers crowded on and a white man was left standing, the bus driver ordered Parks and three others to move. The others reluctantly did so.  

Parks is often portrayed as a meek seamstress, and she did work as a seamstress in a department store. But she was hardly meek. Quietly militant, she had been fighting racial injustice for decades. Finally, fed up with the second-class treatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South, she stood up for freedom by staying seated.

“I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore,” she wrote soon afterward. “When I asked the policeman why we had to be pushed around? He said he didn’t know. `The law is the law. You are under arrest.’ I didn’t resist.”

That note on yellow paper is among Parks’s personal papers that were unavailable to the public and scholars for years. The Library of Congress received the collection in 2014 and created “Rosa Parks -- In Her Own Words,” an exhibition that tells the personal story of one of the most famous figures of the 20th Century.

The exhibition at the library in Washington through September and online at is a reminder during Black History Month, or anytime, that one courageous individual can change the course of history. On Presidents’ Day, when I stopped by, people of all ages and races were paying close and respectful attention to the displays. I recommend the excellent companion book to the exhibit, “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” by Susan Reyburn, on which I rely here.

Parks’s life seems to move inexorably from refusing in childhood to let a white boy bully her (and being scolded by her grandma for talking “biggety to white folks”) to her act of civil disobedience in middle age that led to the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and launched the civil rights movement. Even then, more than half her life was still before her, and she never stopped working for equality.

She died in her sleep at 92 in 2005 and lay in state in the U.S. Capitol, the first woman so honored. She and her late husband had no children, and relatives and friends battled in court over her belongings, which eventually were boxed up and shipped for storage in a warehouse in New York, awaiting an auction.

Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett and head of his own private foundation, bought the entire Parks collection in 2014 for an undisclosed sum. The auction house, however, reportedly placed its value at $10 million. He loaned the collection to the Library of Congress and generously made the gift permanent in 2016.

“I’m only trying to do one thing: preserve what’s there for the public’s benefit,” Howard Buffett told the Associated Press. “I thought about doing what Rosa Parks would want. I doubt that she would want to have her stuff sitting in a box with people fighting over them.”

The trove includes 7,500 manuscripts, 2,500 photographs, clothing she sewed, her many awards and even handmade cards to Parks from children.

“I want to be remembered as a person who stood up to injustice,” Parks said. “And most of all I want to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted others to be free.”

That memory of Rosa Parks is safe at the Library of Congress, part of one of America’s great treasures.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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