Rosa Parks: In Music

A reporter, Rosa Parks, Louise Tappes, and Mary Sims, ca. 1976. Photograph taken to commemorate the renaming of 12th street in Detroit, Michigan to “Rosa Parks Boulevard.” Jason Lovette, photographer. Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Today marks the opening of a new exhibition at the Library of Congress dedicated to civil rights activist Rosa Parks. “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words” draws from material in the Library’s Rosa Parks Collection to tell the life story of this remarkable woman, including her early life and activism, the Montgomery bus boycott, the fallout from Parks’ arrest for her famliy and their move to Detroit, and the global impact of her life.

In considering the global impact of Rosa Parks’ fierce activism, of course, we also find her legacy commemorated in music. One needn’t look far to find music dedicated to and inspired by Rosa Parks in the Music Division’s collections. In 1992, composer Mark Camphouse (b. 1954) wrote A Movement for Rosa, claiming that “there have been other wonderful composers who have written musical tributes…no one ever wrote a work honoring Rosa Parks, who is known as ‘mother of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950’s…’ You can hear Camphouse describe the background and composition of his work in this 2005 podcast from PRX. The Music Division holds Camphouse’s score and parts of A Movement for Rosa, published by TRN Music Publisher and acquired via copyright deposit.

Rosa Parks inspires the third movement of Michael Daugherty’s (b. 1954) 2001 MotorCity Triptych for Orchestra, commissioned by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Neeme Järvi, Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the time, commissioned the work in celebration of Detroit’s 300th birthday. As Daugherty explains in the score’s preface: “MotorCity Triptych is a car trip through the sounds and rhythms of the streets and boulevards of Detroit, Michigan. The triptych in my title refers not only to an iconic art object in three parts, but also to the Ameircan Automobile Association’s ‘Triptik’ travel aid.” The third movement is called “Rosa Parks Boulvard” and pays tribute to Parks, who moved to Detroit in 1957 two years after the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Daugherty once attended a service at the St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit where Parks attended; after the service, the composer spoke with Parks and learned that her favorite music was the traditional spiritual “Oh Freedom.” Daugherty incorporated fragments of that melody into the movement, played in canon by trombones that represent the power of the preacher. The full score to Daugherty’s MotorCity Triptych is available for researchers to study in the Performing Arts Reading Room.

Then, in 2005, Daniel Bernard Roumain, known as DBR (b. 1971), published his String Quartet No. 5 (“Parks”), commissioned by the Lark String Quartet and “dedicated to the memory of Rosa Parks and courageous women everywhere.” The quartet is comprised of three movements: “I Made Up My Mind Not to Move,” “Klap Ur Handz,” and “Isorhythmiclationistic.” Lucy Miller Murray describes the work in her book, Chamber Music: An Extensive Guide for Listeners: “The Fifth Quartet is dedicated to Rosa Parks who died during its composition. The first movement, ‘Klap Ur Hands,’ suggests a joyful coming together…’I Made Up My Mind Not to Move’ is inspired by Rosa Park’s famous decision and carries with it the same stubborn intensity suggested by the use of repetition not unlike that of Shostakovich…” Again, the Music Division holds the score for DBR’s Parks-inspired quartet.

I encourage you to search for recordings of these works and experience how Rosa Parks’ determination, courage, fight for justice, and legacy have collectively inspired contemporary classical music. Interested in finding more music inspired by, dedicated to, and implemented in the civil rights movement? I recommend starting with a few related bibliographies and sources:

McDonald, Anthony, ed. A Catalog of Music Written in Honor of Martin Luther King Jr. 3rd ed. Lanham : Scarecrow Press, 2012.
ML128.B45 M33 2012
ISBN: 9780810881983 (cloth : alk. paper)

Sanger, Kerran L., 1955- “When the Spirit Says Sing!” : The Role of Freedom Songs in the Civil Rights Movement. New York : Garland, 1995.
ML3556 .S26 1995
ISBN: 0815321643 (alk. paper)

Phull, Hardeep. Story Behind the Protest Song : A Reference Guide to the 50 Songs That Changed the 20th Century. Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 2008.
ML3551.5 .P58 2008
ISBN: 9780313341410 (alk. paper)

I also encourage our blind and print disabled readers who are enrolled in the Library’s National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS) to download braille and talking books on Rosa Parks using BARD (the NLS Braille and Audio Reading Download service) or the BARD Mobile app. A few suggestions:

  • The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks (BR 20083, DB 76678), the NAACP Image Award-winning biography by Jeanne Theoharis.
  • Rosa Parks: My Story (DB 38581), the civil rights pioneer’s autobiography, written for children in grades 4–7 and older readers.
  • Our Auntie Rosa: The Family of Rosa Parks Remembers Her Life and Lessons (DB 81129) by Sheila McCauley Keys, an account of Parks’s life away from the spotlight.

To find out more about NLS and how to register, click here: //www.loc.gov/nls/. NLS also holds the largest braille music score library in the world, and offers music instructional materials in audio, large print and braille formats. If you would like to learn how you can borrow or download accessible music materials, please call the NLS Music Section at 1-800-424-8567, x2, or send an email to [email protected]. Thanks to Juliette Appold, Head, NLS Music Section, for contributing this relevant material and contact information.

Additionally, the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division has published an interview with Library Program Specialist Luis Clavell and his work with the Rosa Parks Collection. Read more about Clavell’s work and photographs from the Parks Collection on the Library’s Picture This blog.

More questions? Email our music librarians using via the Ask a Librarian online form; we are eager to connect with you and lead you to more material. And remember to visit the Library’s new exhibition, “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words” – open today!

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