Don't Underestimate Rosa Parks

Illustration for article titled Don't Underestimate Rosa Parks

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.


Rosa was then greeted by a white neighbor, Mr. Charlie, and realized that the purpose of Sam's visit was to grant Mr. Charlie access to Rosa. Mr. Charlie poured himself a glass of whiskey and attempted to put his arm around her waist. Rosa recoiled in fear and disgust. Mr. Charlie said not to worry, that he liked her and had money to give her.

The small Rosa was no match for the heavyset Mr. Charlie, and she was trapped. Sam had set her up, and she felt tricked and betrayed by "someone she trusted … stripped naked of every shred of decency … a commodity from Negro to white man."


She was terrified, and her mind turned to Psalm 27: "The lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?" Recalling her great-grandmother's abuse at the hands of her white master and the oppression of the nine Scottsboro boys who just been convicted on trumped-up rape charges, Rosa found her fear replaced by a "steel determination to stand completely alone against this formidable foe."

She resolved that she would never "yield to this white man's bestiality." He might kill her or rape her, but she vowed to put up a fight. As she kept moving around the living room, trying to stay out of arm's length, Rosa coolly began haranguing Mr. Charlie about the "white man's inhuman treatment of the Negro … I asked him if the white woman were not good enough for him, and it was too bad if something was wrong with them."


On and on, Rosa spoke, determined to resist Mr. Charlie's advances. "I taunted him about the supposed white supremacy: the white man's law drawing the color line of segregation. I would stay within the law — on my side of the line." Standing up for herself as a respectable young woman, she informed him she would not go with anyone she could not marry, throwing the fact that interracial marriage was illegal in Alabama in his face. When Mr. Charlie told her that color did not matter to him and that he had gotten permission from Sam to be with her, she told him that Sam did not own her.

She hated Sam as much as she hated Mr. Charlie. Again, Mr. Charlie offered her money or to set her up with Sam. She told him there was nothing he could do to get her consent — that "if he wanted to kill me and rape a dead body, he was welcome but he would have to kill me first."


The story finishes with Rosa sitting down and reading the newspaper trying to ignore Mr. Charlie while he sits across from her. "I said he couldn't pay me or fool me, or frighten me. At long last Mr. Charlie got the idea that I meant no, very definitely no."

The essay (whether autobiographical, semiautobiographical or metaphoric) affirms the power of resistance and her refusal to be cowed or defeated. "He need not think that because he was a low-down dirty dog of a white man and I was a poor defenseless, helpless colored girl, that he could run over me."


This is an angry, deeply political Rosa Parks. Accustomed to lionizing the quiet heroine of the bus boycott, we rarely treat her as a political thinker. The substance of her ideas, often lost in the memorializing of her, once again was in the background of this week's coverage. Amid all the attention, many people have been speaking for and about her, rather than listening to what she actually said. 

Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at Brooklyn College. Her biography of Rosa Parks will be published by Beacon Press next year.


Jeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and author of the award-winning book The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.