WASHINGTON — Rosa Parks will always be remembered for one moment: a day in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white passenger. But that moment, which sparked a bus boycott and fueled a national movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is not all that defined her.
Archival documents released for the first time by the U.S. Library of Congress show a woman who survived a violent childhood, lost a husband and struggled for years with feelings of anger over her treatment at the hands of white segregationists.
The documents were released on Feb. 4 to commemorate Rosa Parks Day, the 102nd anniversary of her birth in 1913.
Parks debated how much of herself to reveal in a handwritten “sketch” of her life on display in the archives. “Is it worthwhile to reveal the intimacies of the past life?” she wrote. “Will the people be sympathetic or disillusioned when the facts of my life are told? Will they be interested or indifferent? Will the results be harmful or good?”
Adrienne Cannon, a specialist in African-American history and culture at the Library of Congress said it is valuable to see a towering historical figure like Parks in three-dimensions and in all her complexity. “She’s very much aware of her public persona of what she thinks is expected of her from society,” Cannon said. “She’s wrestling with a personal need, as I think we all have, to reveal our true selves.” .
The archives include about 7,500 manuscripts and 2,500 photographs that Parks accumulated throughout her life. She wrote and collected letters from admirers until her death at age 92. Some of her earliest recollections are from a violent period in Alabama when her grandfather would stay up all night guarding the home with a shotgun in case members of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan tried to attack it.
Journalists examine Rosa Parks’ collection which opened for researchers on Feb. 4 at the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division
“He declared that the first to invade our home would surely die,” she wrote.
She also articulates the anger she felt in the era of Jim Crow laws where restrooms, lunch counters and other public places were segregated.
“It is not easy to remain rational and normal mentally in such a setting where even in our airport in Montgomery there is a white waiting room, none for colored except an unmarked seat in the entrance. There are restroom facilities for white ladies and colored women, white men and colored men. We stand outside after being served at the same ticket counter instead of sitting on the inside,” she wrote.
Her words are particularly strong after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat.
“I am nothing. I belong nowhere and to no one. There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take,” she wrote. “The bubble of life grows larger. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.”
Maricia Battle, curator at Library of Congress in the prints and photographs division, said it is important to release this information even if it contradicts the public image of Parks as a stoic protester. “I think what happens is, we get her frozen in that particular point in time and we get her frozen as the woman and that’s all she did. But here in this collection we are finding out that she is more than that and it started very early on,” Battle said. “I think what we will hope to make known to the public is that those feelings in her started early they continued straight to the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott to the end of her life, really.”
Salem Solomon (@salem_solomon) is a journalist, graduate student and a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is currently based in Washington D.C. and working on her professional practicum at Voice of America’s Horn of Africa Service.