'Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words' Reveals The Real Person Behind The Icon

Dec 5, 2019

Rosa Parks is best remembered as the African American woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. It was 1955 in the segregated South and the start of the Montgomery bus boycott.

That moment made her the face of the civil rights movement — but there was much more to her than that single act of defiance.

As a young girl in Alabama in the 1920s, Parks often stayed up all night, helping her grandfather Sylvester Edwards keep watch. In the years after World War I, the Ku Klux Klan rode throughout black communities, terrorizing families, burning churches and homes.

A display includes photos of Rosa Parks's family and handwritten letters about her grandparents.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

The two wanted to be prepared, so her grandfather "always had his shotgun within hand's reach," Parks wrote when she was 6 or 7. "I wanted to see him kill a Ku-Kluxer. He declared the first to invade our home would surely die."

This handwritten note is among the documents, photos and heirlooms such as her family's Bible now on display in Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words. The new exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., aims to reveal the real person behind the civil rights icon known by many only as a demure seamstress.

"She was a radical. She maintained a calm demeanor," says Adrienne Cannon, the exhibit's curator. "But beneath the surface was always that militant spirit, and that buoyed her, and that guided her throughout her life."

Rosa Parks is shown in her booking photo after her arrest in 1955. Her act of civil disobedience sparked the Montgomery bus boycott.
Universal History Archive / Getty Images

Parks was "feisty," says Carla Hayden, the 14th librarian of Congress. "It becomes clear as you walk through the exhibit that her family were feisty people. These were not folks who sit by and let things happen to them."

In fact, Hayden points out, in the 1950s, in the segregated South and with the threat of physical harm, it took immense courage to fight publicly for civil rights.

"At that point, you get a sense that she was making a conscious decision, that she was going to do what she could to help others. And she was going to take the risk," Hayden says.

On Dec. 1, 1955, 42-year-old Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and stayed seated when she was told move to the back of the vehicle.

Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, says Rosa Parks' strength comes through in the forcefulness of her writing.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

"I had been pushed around all my life," she wrote later, reflecting on the incident, "and felt at this moment that I couldn't take it anymore."

She was arrested on charges of civil disobedience. At the Library of Congress exhibit, her arrest record and fingerprints are interspersed between her handwritten notes.

"I sat in a little room with bars before I was moved to a cell with two other women," she remembered. "I felt that I had been deserted, but I did not cry."

Fingerprints taken after Parks' arrest are on display at the Library of Congress.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

Political buttons, brochures and photographs in the exhibit show how the civil rights movement rallied around Parks as she faced consequences from her arrest.

"People have a view of Rosa Parks as this very sedate woman with a purse. And that's the iconic image, and she was just tired," says Hayden, referring to the common explanation given for why Parks did not move.

Parks' handwritten reflections on her arrest.
Rosa Parks Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

"What this exhibit does is show you that there was so much more to Rosa Parks — in terms of her belief in civil rights, her determination and also the hardships that she endured because of that."

Parks' commitment to the civil rights movement continued throughout her life. She spoke at NAACP meetings around the country and stayed involved in civil rights cases on a national level. As photos from the exhibit show, she struck close friendships with prominent activists such as Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael. In 1995, at age 82, she spoke at the Million Man March. Parks died a decade later, in 2005.

"She was active politically and she was right up to the minute," Hayden says. "Rosa Parks kept her hand in the game a little bit."

"Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words" opened on Dec. 5 in Washington, D.C.
Mhari Shaw / NPR

Erin Covey, Kelli Wessinger and Dalia Mortada produced and edited this story for broadcast. Maureen Pao edited the digital story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.