Though snippets of the story and role of Rosa Parks are known, the fact is that much of her personal story has heretofore been hidden to the public. The Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress, formally opened just last week, sheds much more light on the personal life of this courageous civil rights leader. The Rosa Parks Collection is on loan for ten years from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to the Library of Congress.
The collection contains 7500 manuscripts and 2500 photographs. Throughout the month of March a sampling of approximately two dozen items will be on view in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Items from the collection will also be included in the ongoing exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom,” which will open at the Library in September.
Visitors to the exhibition — including virtual visitors — may well find a Rosa Parks they had not known. One poignant example is Parks’ description of her treatment at the downtown public library, where “a colored person will not be permitted to come in and read a book or be given one to take out. The requested book will be sent to the colored branch library, on the east side of town.”
The exhibition proves that Rosa Parks was more complex and more passionate than the stoic protester often portrayed in accounts of her life. Instead, it is clear from her letters that she was filled with rage that inspired her protests. She wrote that “I want to feel the nearness of something secure. It is such a lonely, lost feeling that I am cut off from life. I am nothing. I belong nowhere and to no one.”
Parks wrote that “little children are so conditioned early to learn their places in the segregated pattern as they make their first toddling steps and are weaned from the mother’s breast.” The conditioning last a lifetime. “There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take. The bubble of life grows larger. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.”
The letters include Parks’ references to the murder of Emmett Till and to the terror of the Ku Klux Klan in her home town of Pine Level, Alabama where “KKK moved through the country, burning negro churches, schools, flogging and killing.”
On the one hand, Parks’ refusal to abandon her seat on the public bus meant financial hardship. On the other hand, it earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the respect and admiration of countless individuals, including political and social leaders ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Martin Luther King who said of her: “No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’”
One need not travel to Washington, DC to experience the richness of the Rosa Parks exhibition:
- National Public Radio has produced an 8-minute segment featuring an interview with the curator of the Rosa Parks Collection. Listen at http://www.npr.org/2015/02/06/384391674/rosa-parks-collection-comes-to-library-of-congress
- The Library of Congress has created a very helpful guide to materials related to the collection that are available online. The guide includes links to external web sites and a bibliography containing selections from the collection. http://www.npr.org/2015/02/06/384391674/rosa-parks-collection-comes-to-library-of-congress
- Newsweek also features an extensive article on the collection that includes digitized photos of many of the archival materials. http://www.newsweek.com/what-rosa-parks-archive-reveals-about-civil-rights-hero-305141 — even a photo of Rosa Parks; handwritten recipe for her special “featherlike pancakes.”