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Rosa Parks was a radical, lifelong black liberation activist, not a "meek seamstress"

Jeanne Theoharis, an academic who wrote the biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, reminds us that the historical account of Rosa Parks as an apolitical seamstress who was too tired and exasperated to go to the back of the bus is a fiction: Parks was a brave, committed lifelong race and gender activist who risked her life and livelihood for a cause that she championed ferociously from an early age and never abandoned.

The Library of Congress has recently opened a collection of primary sources about the life of Rosa Parks, including Parks's papers, and they confirm what biographers and admirers have been telling us for decades. Parks was part of a multi-generational political dynasty, the daughter of Garveyite activists, who became secretary of her local NAACP in 1943, and campaigned for voting rights and lionized Malcolm X.

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Parks's papers were kept out of the public eye after her death due to squabbling about the estate and high auction prices. They were eventually purchased by the Howard Buffett Foundation and loaned to the Library of Congress for a decade, which has opened them to scholars for the first time. The papers provide new insight into her life and struggles, and her bravery and fortitude. For example, there's a long letter describing how she fought off a white rapist by informing him -- convincingly -- that he would have to rape her dead body, because she would never submit to him willingly.

The few that remain tell us that her radicalism never weakened. “Freedom fighters never retire,” she noted in a testimonial for a fellow activist. As she had for decades, Parks drew sustenance from the militancy and spirit of young people, working in and alongside the growing Black Power movement. Understanding the impact that years of activism with limited results can have on a person, she continued calling for rapid and radical change. In a 1973 letter posted at the Afro-American Museum in Detroit, she noted the impact that years of white violence and intransigence had on the younger generation:


The attempt to solve our racial problems nonviolently was discredited in the eyes of many by the hard core segregationists who met peaceful demonstrations with countless acts of violence and bloodshed. Time is running out for a peaceful solution. It may even be too late to save our society from total destruction.

Writing this after what many mark as the successful end of the modern civil rights movement, Parks clearly believed that the struggle was not over. In the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, she continued to press for change in the criminal justice system, in school and housing inequality, in jobs and welfare policy and in foreign policy. She worked in U.S. Rep. John Conyers’s office and spoke out against Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, dismayed by his poor record on civil rights. Sometime in the 1990s, an older Parks doodled on a paper bag (preserved in the collection): “The Struggle Continues…. The Struggle Continues…. The Struggle Continues.”

How history got the Rosa Parks story wrong
[Jeanne Theoharis/Washington Post]

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

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