On Wednesday, March 11, 2015, the Law Library of Congress hosted Meg McAleer, senior archives specialist from the Manuscript Division for a power lunch program in celebration of Women’s History Month to discuss civil rights activist Rosa Parks and her experience processing the Rosa Parks Manuscript Collection.
Rosa Parks made her indelible mark on American history when she courageously refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Parks’ subsequent arrest on December 1, 1955 became the impetus for the Montgomery Bus Boycott in which African-Americans avoided riding city buses to protest segregated seating. What is less commonly known, according to McAleer’s account of processing the collection, is that Parks’ powerful and poignant writings reveal a woman who was acutely attuned to the systemic discrimination of the segregated South and was actively involved in the civil rights movement well before and after that fateful December day. She was “more than a one-act play,” McAleer said.
The Rosa Parks Collection, which is on loan to the Library for 10 years from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, spans from 1866-2006 and contains 7,500 items and 2,500 photographs. McAleer and her colleagues had the fascinating, albeit challenging, task of organizing the items in an accessible way for Library of Congress researchers. They methodically organized the items into categories such as–family papers, correspondence, writings, honors (including Parks’ Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal), financial records, books, and what McAleer called “miscellany,” a category for an assortment of items that do not quite fit into a larger category. For example, Parks’ recipe for “featherlite” pancakes is in the miscellany category. McAleer explained that this recipe and other such items “connect us to her [Parks] as a person.” Additionally, other items such as Parks’ poll tax receipt from 1957 remind us of the discriminatory voting practices that occurred in the Jim Crow South as a means to hinder African-Americans from exercising their voting rights by requiring literacy tests and imposing poll taxes. Parks, according to McAleer, voted for the first time in the 1940s after numerous attempts to pass voting tests and was required to pay retroactive poll taxes when she finally passed the voting test.
McAleer also described how the collection revealed the personal relationships that Parks had with her mother, Leona McCauley, and her husband, Raymond Parks, who was also an activist in the NAACP— having served as an advocate in the Scottsboro Boys case, as well as her more estranged relationship with her father, James McCauley. Parks’ autobiographical writings about her early life and her other writings about the Jim Crow South often reflected on the horrors and humiliation she and other African-Americans experienced from being denied access to certain schools, libraries, and restaurants to the discriminatory practices in employment, housing and education. In particular, Parks’ writings reveal that the Emmett Till and the Jeremiah Reeves cases ignited a determination in her to work on social justice issues. In fact, prior to her December arrest, photographs and memorabilia from the collection show that Rosa Parks received activist training at the Highlander Folk School, a social justice training school, where Parks worked with other prominent civil rights leaders.
Furthermore, McAleer shared that the love letters and cards that Parks wrote to her husband addressed the personal price their family had paid as a result of her act of protest on December 1, 1955. He lost his job as a barber and she was ostracized and later let go from her job as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair Department Store. Financial records from the collection indicate that loss of their employment resulted in years of poverty before they finally reached a level of financial stability.
In closing, McAleer’s findings from the Rosa Parks Manuscript Collection painted a much more complex and radical Rosa Parks than the quiet seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she often traveled alone to participate in political rallies, interacting with the political elite of her era such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mr. and Mrs. Thurgood Marshall. In subsequent decades, Parks campaigned and worked for U.S. House Representative John Conyers, supported Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement. Rosa Parks had a “deep sense of reverence,” McAleer said. She was well aware of the importance of “showing up to do work for something greater than oneself.”