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Rosa Parks’ archive opening to public at Library of Congress

February 3, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — Researchers and the public will finally have full access to civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ archive of letters, writings, personal notes and photographs for the first time Wednesday at the Library of Congress.

Parks, who died in 2005 at 92, is beloved in American history for her civil disobedience on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. That defining moment, when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in 1955, triggered a yearlong bus boycott that helped dismantle a system of segregation.

The collection will provide what experts call a more complex view of a woman long recalled in history for one 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 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 National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 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 Congressman 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 and Black Panther gatherings.

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.

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Follow Brett Zongker on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DCArtBeat .

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