Don't Underestimate Rosa Parks

The coverage of her essay on a near-rape misses her powerful political theme of resistance.

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In the past few days, news of Rosa Parks' "near-rape" has rippled through the media -- in part because of a "newly found" six-page document in her own hand from the late 1950s, revealed by Guernsey's Auctioneers. There are two problems with how the story is playing out, however: the casting of Parks as victim rather than a political agent (Parks' essay explicitly emphasizes the power of resistance) and the reasons it has been in the news in the first place.

First, the document is not new. Guernsey's has been trying to sell the Rosa Parks Archive for a number of years and scanned a small handful of documents, including this essay, which it has shown potential buyers for years. However, the auction house has steadfastly refused any, even limited, access to the papers by scholars -- which is why the public has not known of it.

The essay has circulated now in part to publicize and facilitate Guernsey's sale of the archive. (In February 2007, a Michigan probate court, in an undisclosed settlement between her family and the Parks Institute -- established in 1987 and run by longtime friend Elaine Steele -- gave the entirety of Parks' possessions to the custody of Guernsey's to sell. The auction is back in the news because of a suit Steele recently filed before the Michigan Supreme Court.)

More important is the content of Parks' handwritten essay, where the narrator outwits her would-be violator by the power of her resistance. Many folks have weighed in this week on the document, but they have nonetheless downplayed the theme of resistance that drives the piece.

According to the articles, Steven G. Cohen, a lawyer for Elaine Steele as well as the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, said that people who knew Parks well were aware that she liked to write fictional essays for herself, and Steele never heard Parks speak of the encounter; nor was she aware of the document. "This six-page essay, we believe, is a work of fiction," said Cohen. "We believe that Mrs. Parks meant for the story to be private. It never should have been part of the memorabilia collection."

But historian Danielle McGuire, whose book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance looks at a series of cases of sexual violence against black women -- including the case of Recy Taylor and Parks' organizing role in it -- called the essay an astounding find. McGuire says this helps explain Parks' lifelong campaign against the rape of black women by white men: "This gives a much more personal context to that," and Parks' estate might be "trying to protect her respectability."

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All the attention largely misses the central theme of Rosa Parks' piece -- and the political philosophies at its core. The essay is not about being a victim but highlights the power of protest and self-defense. "We always felt that if you talked violently and said what you would do if they did something to you," Parks explained in her 1992 autobiography, "that did more good than nonviolence." This six-page essay expounds on that belief.

The story outline corresponds to Parks' own history: It is the late spring of 1931 and the narrator is 18, working as a domestic because she could not afford to continue in high school (as was true for Parks). The white man in the story is named "Mr. Charlie" and the black man "Sam" -- so even if this is based on a single true story or a composite of experiences, the choice of these names suggests Parks meant the story also as allegory.

That evening, the couple she worked for had gone out, and the narrator (who is unnamed but for this purpose will be called Rosa) was looking after the baby. Having just put the baby down, she welcomed a bit of rest and relaxation before the family came home.  Sam, a black man who also worked at the house, came to the back door and said he had lost his coat. She let him in and went to look for the coat.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM