WASHINGTON — You may think you know Rosa Parks. But a new exhibit aims to educate further about the late activist and civil rights icon.
“Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” a new exhibition opening at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, reveals Rosa Parks was more than the acts of heroism that made her famous. Yes, Parks famously declined to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus in 1955, but she was also an activist before and after. She fought against inequality and injustice for decades and wasn’t even to the halfway point of her life upon her arrest.
“We wanted to get beyond the legend,” Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, tells USA TODAY. “Beyond the tired woman on the bus.”
And beyond the exhibition does go. Here’s a look at what we saw during a preview. .
What the Rosa Parks exhibit looks like
Visitors to the nation’s capital will already be awestruck by the Library of Congress’s striking exterior, featuring tall columns and statues of mermaids. Head inside and you’ll be treated to intricate artwork along the walls and hike up the stairs or take the elevator to get to the exhibit itself. You’ll walk through the Library of Congress’ ongoing exhibition about women’s suffrage: “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote.”
Whether you’re looking around or closing your eyes and listening, you’ll be immersed in everything Rosa Parks, from her early activism to supporting Jesse Jackson for president with pictures to videos to quotes to handwritten letters.
“It is better to teach or live equality and love … than to have hatred and prejudice,” one quote on a screen reads.
The Rosa Parks collection includes 140 years of family history and approximately 10,000 items, according to Adrienne Cannon, curator.
The handwritten letters stand out as the most compelling. Papers featuring her impeccable cursive handwriting weave throughout the exhibit, housed in traditional museum glass cases but also blown up as posters. David Mandel, the director of the Center for Exhibits and Interpretation at the Library of Congress, points out how she would write things on the fronts and backs of documents, including an envelope and even a pharmacy bag.
And that’s part of why they chose to blow them up in the first place for the exhibit: “They’re almost art in a way,” Mandel says. “The artistic quality bled over into this humanizing quality that seemed quite poignant,” he adds.
What else is inside the Rosa Parks exhibit?
The exhibition includes everything from Parks’ personal reflections on her arrest to family photographs and letters to a handmade blue dress from Parks’ wardrobe. You can even see a sketch of what the bus looked like from that historic day in Montgomery (and where Parks sat).
Among details you may not know about Parks: She and husband Raymond Parks worked to free the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. She took on the role of secretary of the Montgomery NAACP in 1943. She also worked on Rep. John Conyers’ congressional staff from 1965 to 1988.
There’s also a first-person account from her about how she was nearly raped while working as a housekeeper in the spring of 1931. “He was fast becoming intoxicated on alcohol and lustful desire for my body,” she writes.
Cannon says the most striking item in the exhibit for her is Parks’ reflections on her arrest. They are written in ink, and then in pencil.
“To a large degree she’s going to bear her soul, and she does that in pencil because it’s tentative,” Cannon says. “Because she’s revealing her vulnerability and she’s not sure what she’s going to say.”
Such reflections include her brief incarceration, to writing about the larger impact of what living under Jim Crow segregation does to the psyche.
“It simultaneously crystallizes what we know about her, her iconic status as the mother of the modern civil rights movement, the arrest that led to the Montgomery bus boycott … (it also ) presents her as a woman. Human, vulnerable and perfect. And that’s what this exhibit tries to do,” Cannon adds.
As part of a new pilot program at the Library of Congress, reference librarians will be on hand at the exhibit to let visitors know how they can see and use the materials themselves. They can even go online and download documents for research projects and publications.
“Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words” is also the title of a book that serves as a companion to the exhibition, written by Susan Reyburn. It features more than 80 color and black-and-white images from Parks’ collection, with many of the pages making their debut in print.
What would Rosa Parks think of the exhibit?
Parks died in 2005, but those who knew her say she’d be amazed and honored.
“For a little woman from Alabama to be in this awesome building … she in her wildest dreams would’ve never dreamed that she would be portrayed like this or that her personal writings would be exposed,” Jane Gunter, who was on the Montgomery bus with Parks, says.
Gunter, a white woman, offered her own seat to Parks: “She can take my seat,” Gunter said, but a tall, thin white man told her, “Don’t make a move.” Gunter met Parks decades later in Atlanta. Parks told her, “You were there.”
Fred Gray, her lawyer at the time, thinks she would’ve been proud of the progress in today’s world but would strive for more.
“I think she would think that all of these honors are good and we’ve made tremendous progress. But I think she would also say that there is still too much racism in this country,” he says. “I think she would tell us she did what she could.”
It’s safe to say that anyone who visits this exhibit (on display through September 2020) will be invigorated to fight for progress. But the first step is getting educated about the people who laid the groundwork, like Parks — and a reminder that she was “human, vulnerable and perfect.”
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