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Parks’ Biographers Describe a Committed, Rich Life

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The following post is by Neely Tucker, a writer-editor in the Library’s Office of Communications. 

Historian Douglas Brinkley speaks about his biography of Rosa Parks with NPR’s
Michel Martin in the Coolidge Auditorium, February 13, 2020. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

The moment that made Rosa Parks famous — her refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, on Dec. 1, 1955 — is more properly viewed as a snapshot of a life in motion, rather than a freeze-frame of a life defined, two of her biographers said in a Feb. 13 National Book Festival Presents program in the Coolidge Auditorium.

Rosa Parks: The History and the Heart” was staged while the Library is hosting the first major exhibit of the Rosa Parks papers. The speakers related stories that showed Parks to be a lifelong activist who chafed at social injustice, racism and intolerance from her childhood in rural Alabama to her senior years in Detroit. Her life, they said, was far more intense than the politically popular, sanitized versions that hold her to be a polite church lady who accidentally became the mother of the civil rights movement.

Biographer Jeanne Theoharis speaks at “Rosa Parks: The History and the Heart,” February 13, 2020. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

“She keeps going … insisting that there’s much more work to be done, that the struggle’s not over, that we need to carry it forward,” said Jeanne Theoharis, author of the 2013 biography, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.” A fitting way to honor her legacy is to resist “the tendency to tell this happy one-day story about her … but, in fact, actually miss what she’s asking of us,” Theoharis said.

The evening program showcased several aspects of Parks’ life and impact, much of it documented in the Library’s holdings. Her papers are held in the Manuscript Division. Thousands of pictures are in the Prints and Photographs Division. Both collections are showcased in “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” the multimedia exhibit on view in the Jefferson Building. Online, viewers can help transcribe her writings on the Library’s By the People crowdsourcing site.

During the program, Adrienne Cannon, the specialist in African American history and culture in the Manuscript Division, spoke about the details of the Library’s holdings of Parks’ possessions. Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, gave a short lecture on the scope of Parks’ life. Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, author of “Rosa Parks: A Life,” concluded the program with a conversation with Michel Martin, the National Public Radio host, about his Parks biography and their time together.

Meg McAleer leads a tour of the “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words” exhibit with Parks biographers Douglas Brinkley and Jeanne Theoharis, February 13, 2020. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.

Despite the burdens of her work, Brinkley said, Parks and her fellow activists often displayed a sense of humor that kept them going. For example, he once asked her if she realized that Martin Luther King Jr. — who was just 26 when he took the helm of the Montgomery bus boycott — was going to be “somebody to keep an eye on.”

“She looked at me with this funny look and said, ‘We just kept saying, boy, is he cute! We finally have a cute preacher in town!’” he said, laughing at the memory. “She was very human like that, in being self-deprecating and telling fun, warm-hearted stories.”

Parks was born on Feb. 4, 1913, under bitter Jim Crow segregation in Tuskegee, Alabama. At the age of 6, in the summer of 1919, when racist violence swept across the nation, she sat up nights with her shotgun-toting grandfather as he kept lookout for hooded terrorists who had been targeting black farmers in their tiny hamlet. She wanted, she later wrote, to see him kill a Ku Kluxer.

She married the first activist she ever met, a barber named Raymond Parks, who worked to help defend the Scottsboro Boys — black youths who had been falsely accused of raping a white woman — despite threats from white vigilantes. In the 1940s, she overcame blatant resistance at the county courthouse to become a registered voter. She then joined the Alabama NAACP as a secretary and activist. In 1955, her unplanned bus protest subjected her and her husband to a steady rain of racist backlash.

They were fired from their jobs, descending into harsh poverty for nearly a decade. The couple fled to Detroit in search of a better life, but largely found that to be an illusion. She called the Motor City “the promised land that wasn’t,” nearly as rife with racism as Alabama had been. In a 1960 profile, Jet Magazine called her the boycott’s “forgotten woman” and described her as a “tattered rag of her former self — penniless, debt ridden, ailing with stomach ulcers, and a throat tumor.”

“Treading the tight-rope of Jim Crow from birth to death, from almost our first knowledge of life to our last conscious thought, from the cradle to the grave is a major mental acrobatic feat,” she writes in one undated note in the Library’s collection. “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 consequence if we get out of line.”

In 1964, Parks volunteered to work on the longshot congressional campaign of a local politician named John Conyers, then an unknown. When he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, he hired her to help run constituent services in his Detroit office, a position she held until her retirement.

When asked what she would want her admirers to be doing today, Brinkley pointed to her devout Christianity and her steel will of courage to fight racist violence.

“Love,” he said. “Love your family. Love people, but also fight. … So get involved. Vote.”

All National Book Festival Presents events are free and open to the public, but most require tickets. Read our recent press release for the full winter and spring National Book Festival Presents event calendar. You can also subscribe here for email updates on ticketing and book sales, and learn more about the series on the National Book Festival Presents website.