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Exhibit Shows Different Side Of Rosa Parks


Rosa Parks is the woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus. It was 1955. It was the segregated South, and it was the start of the Montgomery bus boycott. From that moment on, Rosa Parks became an icon in the civil rights movement. But for a long time, we haven't known much about her as a regular person.

Is that Rosa Parks on a yoga mat?

A few days ago, I went to see a new exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It's called "Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words." And it shows a very different Rosa Parks than the woman we learned about in history class.

ADRIENNE CANNON: She was a radical. She maintained a calm demeanor, but beneath the surface was always that militant spirit. And that buoyed her, and that guided her throughout her life.

KING: Adrienne Cannon curated this exhibit. And she says that militant spirit was instilled in Rosa Parks when she was a very small girl.

CANNON: The right of self-defense was stressed in the home. You can see in that early sketch - early childhood incidents and experiences - she opens it with talking about the Ku Klux Klan riding through the community, terrorizing black families, burning churches and homes in the aftermath of World War I. And that she sits up at night, fully dressed, with her grandfather, keeping visual over the home. They often sat up all night long because they couldn't take the chance of being caught off guard. And she says that she wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer.

KING: She says that?

CANNON: She says that.

KING: As a child?

CANNON: As a child. The first one that entered our house would surely die - this when I was 6 or 7.

KING: I talked to Carla Hayden, the current librarian of Congress, to learn more about the exhibit.

This exhibition, "Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words," gives you the impression - that title gives you the impression that there's a story that's been told about Rosa Parks, but it's not quite the whole story.

CARLA HAYDEN: 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. And 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.

KING: Do you think she was concerned that she had become a one-dimensional figure? Because she must have seen herself described as a demure seamstress and thought, what the heck? That's not me.

HAYDEN: And I think that you - when you look at the photographs in the exhibit, you look at her writings, you also can imagine that every now and then she probably had a very small smile when she thought about that.

KING: (Laughter).

HAYDEN: You get to know Rosa Parks as a person and not as an icon. And she is so relatable in that way. You feel like you're visiting one of your grandmothers or your aunt and you want to hear more from her. And you just start speaking in a different way when you get into the exhibit as well.

KING: Who was she as a little girl?

HAYDEN: She was feisty.

KING: Feisty.

HAYDEN: And the anecdote of her - being just a little bit not violent, but she thought about it.

KING: And 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.

HAYDEN: And when you think about what was going on in the '50s - I was alive then. And in fact, I talked to my 88-year-old mother recently, and she remembered, in 1955, we were in Tallahassee, Fla., and things were pretty rough at that time. And so to have a young person with this determination to fight for rights and to be part of a movement was brave - took a lot of courage.

KING: There was the risk of physical harm. She would have known that.

HAYDEN: Yes, yes. And at that point, you get a sense that she was making a decision, a conscious decision that she was going to do what she could to help others, and she was going to take the risk.

KING: Which is a lot gutsier, frankly, than just refusing to get up...

HAYDEN: I'm tired. Yes.

KING: ...Than just saying, I'm tired.

HAYDEN: And that's what we hope that people will get from the exhibit, and that they will realize that she was embraced by Stokely Carmichael and younger activists and Angela Davis's mom...

KING: Lights of the Black Power movement, yeah.

HAYDEN: ...And she participated.

KING: She wrote a lot. The exhibition is called "Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words," and I thought that was metaphorical. But, in fact, she wrote a lot.

HAYDEN: She wrote a lot.

KING: She wrote letters. She kept what looked like diary entries. What in there surprised you? Did you read anything that surprised you?

HAYDEN: Well, the strength that comes through, but also the forcefulness in her writing that comes through...

KING: Tell us more.

HAYDEN: ...And the repetition. And it's almost a stream-of-consciousness aspect. And so she's demure. She's ladylike. But in her writing, you can see that there were these deep feelings and emotions that she was expressing.

KING: And yet hardly a picture where she's not smiling. And I found that impressive. She seems to have a cheerful heart. I had not seen - you know, I had seen the pictures of her around the time of the boycott. She would have been in her early 40s. We see pictures of her younger and older and then much older. And she has a serenity about her, doesn't she?

HAYDEN: And she seems to enjoy being very well-presented. And there's a beautiful video and a photograph of her in a gorgeous gown, floor-length, kind of sequined and lace - and it's pink, her favorite color. And she is just happy as a lark. She just looks wonderful with the essence of war. She's just beautiful. And you can see that that was something that made her happy.

KING: Your colleague, Adrienne Cannon, the curator, described Rosa Parks in our interview as both a militant and a radical. Lots of people, when they're young, can be described that way. Was Rosa Parks that way in her 80s as she aged?

HAYDEN: She certainly was. And you can see her, as I mentioned, with Stokely Carmichael and in other instances where she's with people who are doing groundbreaking things - presidential candidates, Jesse Jackson. So she was active politically, and she was right up to the minute. She was at the Million Man March and participated in that. So Rosa Parks kept her hand in the game a little bit.


That was Noel King speaking with Carla Hayden, the 14th librarian of Congress, and Adrienne Cannon, the curator of the library's exhibit, "Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words." It opens today.


Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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