Sixty years ago today, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus and was arrested for her failure to comply with the city’s segregation laws. Today, Rosa Parks is an American hero whose story is taught in schools across the nation. But is the story of a meek, quiet woman who had finally had enough with the rampant racism she had grown up with actually the real story? Well, yes, and no.
Yes, Rosa Parks, on the night of December 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat for a white man on a Montgomery bus. Yes, the bus driver, James Blake, had her arrested. But was Rosa Parks the meek, soft-spoken woman that the history books tell us about? No, she wasn’t.
Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama, to Leona Edwards, a teacher, and James McCauley, a carpenter. In the recently opened Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress — featuring never-before-seen personal writings, letters, speech notes, financial and medical records, political documents, and decades of photographs, all belonging to Parks, reports the Washington Post — we see Rosa Parks for who she really was, not who the history books have told us she was.
These documents paint a picture, not of a quiet, unassuming girl, but of a strong, outspoken, lifelong activist whose passion for civil rights began in childhood — not, as we are taught, on a bus on a cold December day. Parks writes of how her grandmother would warn her about “taking biggety to white folks” and of how that same grandmother grew angry with her as a child when, after being bullied relentlessly, Rosa picked up a brick to challenge the white bully.
“I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it’.”
That defiance of the white oppressor remained with Rosa Parks throughout her life. In one of the documents now on display, Rosa tells the story of a near-rape encounter in 1931 while doing domestic work in her late teens. Parks recounts how she was threatened with assault by a white neighbor of her employer at the time. She writes that the man — who she called “Mr. Charlie” — was let into the house by Sam, another African-American employee, and how Mr. Charlie got himself a drink, put his hands on her waist, and attempted to make a move on her. Rosa’s resolve to never consent to the man was strong, no matter the consequences.
“I was ready and willing to die, but give any consent, never, never, never. If he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body,” Parks wrote, “he was welcome but he would have to kill me first.”
This particular anecdote was of significance to Parks, when, years later — having been committed to women’s rights her entire life — she successfully co-founded Detroit’s Joan Little Defense Committee to help Joan Little, a black woman incarcerated for robbery who had killed a white guard who raped her. Thanks to Rosa’s help, Little was acquitted and became the first woman in U.S. history to “successfully use self-defense against sexual assault in a homicide case,” writes the Washington Post.
When Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, and became the civil rights activist the world needed, many believed that her refusal came from the fact that she was tired, and, therefore, didn’t want to move, but the fact of the matter is that momentous day in December of 1955 wasn’t the first time Rosa had refused to move to the back of the bus. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time she’d refused with that particular bus driver, reports the Nation.
“Over the years I have been rebelling against second-class citizenship. It didn’t begin when I was arrested. Some people say I was tired [the day Rosa refused to move]. The only tired I was was tired of giving.”
Rosa Parks wasn’t even the first African American to get arrested on a Montgomery bus for refusing to move to the back for a white person. In 1944, Viola White refused, and she was beaten, arrested, and fined $10 for her transgression. In 1950, police officers shot and killed Hilliard Brooks, a World War II veteran, when he boarded a Montgomery bus and wouldn’t move to the back. In March of 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat to a white bus patron. Police were called, and Colvin was arrested and charged on three counts. Rosa Parks actually served as a fundraiser for Colvin’s case. It was at that point, in December of the same year, that the black community of Montgomery, Alabama, was at its breaking point, and when 42-year-old civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat, she became the voice the civil rights movement desperately needed at the time.
Now that these documents and photographs are viewable to the public, the world can finally learn about the strong, outspoken, civil rights activist — who called Malcolm X her personal hero — that Rosa Parks actually was, rather than the meek, passive, “tired,” woman that history tells about.
[Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/AP]