The black-and-white photograph of Rosa Parks on the bus looks familiar.
She’s staring forward, reenacting her moment in history as if preparing for a place in a grade school textbook on the civil rights movement, conservatively dressed in a hat and patterned dress, holding her handbag tightly on her lap so as not to bother anyone.
But her words, written in her journals and letters at roughly the same period as her 1955 arrest, show a far more provocative and wounded Parks, who sees the daily humiliations of segregation in Montgomery, Ala., as soul-crushing, to the point that “the line between reason and madness grows thinner.”
“Such a good job of ‘brain washing’ was done on the Negro, that a militant Negro was almost a freak of nature to them, many times ridiculed by others of his own group,” she wrote.
Both versions of Parks’ persona — the stoic protester and the furious agitator — are revealed in intimate detail in a newly released trove of documents that includes 7,500 manuscripts and 2,500 photographs collected throughout her long life.
The collection, which had been stored in a warehouse amid an estate battle, is on loan to the Library of Congress for the next decade, as part of an agreement with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which bought it last year.
The public will have access to the collection beginning Wednesday, which would have been Parks’ 102nd birthday. Parks died in 2005 at age 92.
The journals detail her daily life as a seamstress in the Montgomery Fair department store, where black employees were forced to eat lunch up against the bathroom designated for black employees and patrons. They show her raw anger at the killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, less than four months before Parks’ arrest, a slaying “that could be multiplied many times in the South.”
The diverse documents in the collection, kept in Mylar slips and acid-free folders, one by one create a mosaic of a life and a movement: A peanut butter pancake recipe scribbled on the back of a bank envelope. A program for a brunch honoring radical professor Angela Davis, whose defense on murder charges she supported.
There are postcards from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a worn Bible with a Spanish-language flashcard used as a bookmark, and a badge in her name for the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drive of 1964.
“The icon Rosa Parks as mother of the civil rights movement — as shy, genteel, working-class black woman — it was the public persona she thought was important to maintain because of the tenor of the times she lived through,” said Adrienne Cannon, African American history and culture specialist for the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. “But in this collection, we hear more of that militant voice.”
Cannon said that she believed Parks — whose political activism was better understood among civil rights activists and historians than the general public — wanted history to see her in a more complex light, and that the papers were maintained as a sort of time capsule, for a day when more of her edges could be understood.
“She held onto them until the end of her life, the most personal of the personal, because she wanted us to know the true Rosa Parks,” Cannon said.
The narrative begins at an early age, when Parks recalls her fear as a 6- or 7-year-old, “keeping vigil with my grandpa” who stood watch with a shotgun to protect their rural Alabama home from the Ku Klux Klan.
“I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer,” she wrote.
Parks was already an activist — influenced by her husband, her grandfather and an Alabama civil rights group known as the Women’s Political Council — by 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man, archivists said.
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SOURCE: LA Times, Noah Bierman