Library experts involved in making the papers of Rosa Parks available online answered questions in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session on Tuesday.
During the Reddit AMA, experts from the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division, the Prints and Photographs Division and Educational Outreach took questions about Rosa Parks and about how the Library cataloged, preserved, digitized, and made her papers available to the world.
Here are some of the highlights:
QUESTION: As a non-American whose familiarity covers only the basics of the civil rights movement, what new historical insights and knowledge do you think will we be able to gain from her papers about topics such as the insight workings of the civil rights movement?
ANSWER: This might not be an expected answer to your question, but it is what immediately came to my mind when I read it (and I thank you for that, because I haven’t had a chance to write about this). The collection makes the personal sacrifices of civil rights activists palpable. One of the most poignant aspects of the collection is the way it documents the sacrifices Rosa Parks made in standing up to discrimination. Most of us I think know that she and her husband lost their jobs in the weeks following her arrest. Neither of them was able to find sustained employment in Montgomery after that. But did we know the extent and duration of the poverty that resulted from their prolonged unemployment? The collection includes their income tax returns. In 1955, they had a combined income of $3,749.94. Their combined income tax return for 1959 lists only $661.06. By then they were living in Detroit, a city that had been rocked by the 1957 recession. Rosa Parks was also grappling with serious medical conditions.
In 1960, a reporter for Jet magazine spent the day with Mrs. Parks. In a feature article, magazine’s readers learned that the woman whose courage had launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott was “penniless, debt-ridden, ailing with stomach ulcers and a throat tumor, compressed into two rooms with her husband and mother.” Few people knew the conditions under which this proud woman was living. In 1965, newly-elected Congressman John Conyers hired Mrs. Parks to work in his Detroit office, providing her with greater financial stability.
There was backlash against the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) for not giving financial assistance to Rosa Parks and her husband when they were in such need. In 1957 the Pittsburgh Courier wrote about her poverty, implying that something should have been done within the movement to help the family. On November 21, 1957, Rosa Parks wrote to her husband that she was sick over the articles and would not have said anything against the MIA. Civil rights leaders in Montgomery had written a strong reply to the newspaper.
QUESTION: What’s the most surprising discovery in the collection?
ANSWER: Thanks for your question. I think each of us will have a different answer. For me, I was struck by Rosa Parks as a writer. Her writing is powerful, clear-eyed, revealing, and lyrical. If you have only a limited time to look at the collection, I suggest that you look at three folders of her early writings. They are largely undated and fragmentary, but very powerful. Folder 1 and Folder 2 concern racial discrimination in general and her bus protest and the boycott in particular. The third folder contains autobiographical writings.
But if you don’t have time to look at all three, read this one page about “treading the tight rope of Jim Crow” that moved me so greatly. In it, she weaves together the imagery to ropes, strings, and lines:
“Treading the tight-rope of Jim Crow from birth to death, from almost our first knowledge of life to our last conscious thought, from cradle to the grave, is a major mental acrobatic feat. It takes a noble soul to plumb this line. There is always a line of some kind – color line, hanging rope, tight rope.”
“To me it seems that we are puppets on strings in the white man’s hands. They say we must be segregated from them by the color line, yet they pull the strings and we perform to their satisfaction or suffer the consequences if we get out of line.”
SECOND ANSWER: The item that surprised me the most was one of the first items I saw. It’s one I go back to again and again: “I had been pushed around….”
Having grown up with the Rosa Parks myth, I saw – right before my eyes – the incontrovertible evidence that Parks wasn’t just “tired” that day. Even though I already knew this history, seeing her handwritten words made a powerful impact on me. The pages following this one are equally moving.
We have heard from teachers who have incorporated this page in their classroom activities; an interesting note is that students often insist on reading Rosa Parks’ handwritten notes, even when a transcript is available. To me, this shows that students instinctively recognize the power of the original.
QUESTION: How did Parks interact with the Civil rights movement and it’s leaders after the boycott, say up until 1970? Did she correspond with people like John Lewis, and keep up her acquaintence with King?
ANSWER: After the bus boycott Rosa Parks remained active in the civil rights movement. She participated in the Prayer Pilgrimage (1957), the March on Washington (1963), Mississippi Freedom Summer (1964), the Selma to Montgomery March (1965), and the Poor People’s Campaign (1968). She maintained a lifelong friendship with Coretta Scott King and served on the board of trustees of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. She fought for women’s rights and against the Vietnam War. She advocated for prisoners and supported the growing Black Power movement. Rosa Parks was employed by Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) from 1965 to 1988. She worked with local groups to improve Detroit. She supported Jesse Jackson’s 1964 presidential campaign. In the mid-1980s she participated in anti-apartheid protests. She was part of the welcoming party for Nelson Mandela when he visited the U.S. She co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development with Elaine Steele in 1987 to promote and direct youth. She addressed the 1995 Million Man March. In 2000, Rosa Parks met with Pope John Paul II in St. Louis and read an appeal for racial healing. The Rosa Parks collection at the Library of Congress includes manuscripts and photographs that document these associations and varied activities.
SECOND ANSWER: Great question. Many photographs in the collection show how active Parks was within the civil rights community long after the boycott, through the 1990s. Some examples from the 1960s and 1970s show her supporting activist Sallye Davis, mother of Angela Davis. Here she’s with Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. We also have photos of Parks with Stokely Carmichael. She also attended NAACP related events with Coretta King and maintained a friendship with her after Kings death. Here she is at an event with King, around 1970.