WASHINGTON — Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, reflected later on how it felt to be treated less than equal and once feistily wrote of how tired she was of being “pushed around” — parts of her history long hidden away.
At the Library of Congress, researchers and the public now have full access to Parks’ archive of letters, writings, personal notes and photographs for the first time. The collection provides what experts call a more complex view of a woman long recalled in history for one iconic image: that of a nonviolent seamstress who inspired others to act at the dawning of the civil rights era.
A protracted legal battle between her heirs and friends had kept the collection from public view for years. But in 2014, philanthropist Howard Buffett bought the collection and placed it on long-term loan at the national library. The Associated Press has previously reported on the legal wrangling that kept Parks’ archive warehoused for years. Until now, scholars have had very limited, if any, access to the materials.
“I think it’s one of the first times we’re actually able to read her voice, and it just totally goes against this image of the quiet seamstress,” said Margaret McAleer, an archivist at the library. “Her writings are phenomenally powerful.”
Parks, who died in 2005 at 92, is beloved in American history for her civil disobedience on a Montgomery, Ala., bus. That defining moment in 1955 triggered a yearlong bus boycott that helped dismantle a system of segregation.
“I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore,” she wrote. “When I asked the policeman why we had to be pushed around, he said he didn’t know. ‘The law is the law. You are under arrest.’ I didn’t resist.”
Parks also wrote of feeling lonely and lost living through the struggle with segregation.
After her arrest, Parks lost her job as a tailor at Montgomery’s largest department store because of her activism. Her husband, Raymond, lost his job, too, and the couple sank into deep poverty. They moved to Detroit but continued to struggle.
She traveled with the NAACP, pressing for civil rights, and eventually landed a job at the Hampton Institute in Virginia earning $3,700 a year, enough to send some money home to her husband and mother. It wasn’t until 1965 when Parks was hired for the district office of Michigan Rep. John Conyers that she finally earned a steady, living wage, archivists said.
Parks’ archive provides scholars and the public with a fuller sense of her life and faith, her personality and her pain, said library historian Adrienne Cannon.
“It’s important because we see Rosa Parks in a kind of almost frozen, iconic image, a hero that is not really real flesh and blood,” Cannon said. “Here we get a sense of a woman that is really full flesh and blood.”
The collection may surprise people by revealing Parks had an aggressive edge and supported more radical actions seeking equality over the years, archivists said. She used her symbolic status to support Malcolm X, Black Panther gatherings and the Wilmington 10 in North Carolina.
“She was so deeply opposed to segregation that as the younger generation came along, she didn’t hold back from them. She was in the fight,” said Helena Zinkham, the library’s collections director.
The library now holds about 7,500 manuscript items and 2,500 photographs from Parks, including the Bible she kept in her pocket, letters from admirers and her Presidential Medal of Freedom. A small exhibit is planned for March. All the items will be digitized and posted online.
Artifacts such as Parks’ clothing, furniture and a pillbox hat she may have worn on the Montgomery bus, will find homes elsewhere. The library plans to place them with other museums or institutions that can conserve and display Parks’ belongings.
The library already is in talks with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, now under construction on the National Mall, to possibly house some of the items.