Today also marks 60 years since Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. At the Washington Post, Jeanne Theoharis explores "How history got the Rosa Parks story wrong."
Americans are convinced they know this civil rights hero. In textbooks and documentaries, she is the meek seamstress gazing quietly out of a bus window — a symbol of progress and how far we've come. When she died in 2005, the word "quiet" was used in most of her obituaries and eulogies. We have grown comfortable with the Parks who is often seen but rarely heard.There is much, much more at the link.
That image of Parks has stripped her of political substance. Her "life history of being rebellious," as she put it, comes through decisively in the recently opened Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress. It features previously unseen personal writings, letters, speech notes, financial and medical records, political documents, and decades of photographs.
There, we see a lifelong activist who had been challenging white supremacy for decades before she became the famous catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott. We see a woman who, from her youth, didn't hesitate to indict the system of oppression around her. As she once wrote, "I talked and talked of everything I know about the white man's inhuman treatment of the negro."
Parks was a seasoned freedom fighter who had grown up in a family that supported Marcus Garvey and who married an activist for the Scottsboro boys. She joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in 1943, becoming branch secretary. She spent the next decade pushing for voter registration, seeking justice for black victims of white brutality and sexual violence, supporting wrongfully accused black men, and pressing for desegregation of schools and public spaces. Committed to both the power of organized nonviolent direct action and the moral right of self defense, she called Malcolm X her personal hero.
The Rosa Parks Collection, which opened in February, reveals how broadly Parks has been distorted and misunderstood.
...Though Parks later wrote an autobiography, her notes from decades earlier give a more personal sense of her thoughts. In numerous accounts, she highlighted the difficulty of negotiating one self in a segregated society and the immense pressure put on black people not to dissent. She wrote that it took a "major mental acrobatic feat" to survive as a black person in the United States. Highlighting that it was "not easy to remain rational and normal mentally in such a setting," she refused to normalize the ability to function under American racism.
I am reminded of what the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, said following Bree Newsome's arrest after she scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina state capitol to remove the Confederate flag: Newsome, he said, is a "committed, trained, non-violent messenger of the truth [with a] deep commitment [to] justice, love, and true inter-racial community. ...[Newsome] stands in a long tradition ...Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and more recently hundreds of protesters in Moral Monday...were all considered, at first, criminals for their acts of conscience."
It's only tempting to exploit time to de-radicalize Rosa Parks' (and other black women's) lives and actions if one seeks to conceal the oppression that necessitates their radicalism.
Rosa Parks was a radical. I honor that.
[Related: Quote of the Day; Photo of the Day.]