Long before Rosa Parks rode her way into the history books, as the African American woman who refused in 1955 to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, she was a fighter for justice.
More than 30 years earlier, when Rosa was about 10 years old, a bullying white boy threatened to punch her. “I picked up a brick and dared him to hit me,” she said later. “He thought the better of it and went away.”
An even earlier memory was of her grandfather keeping watch at night to protect his family and home from an attack by the Ku Klux Klan. “The doors and windows were boarded and nailed tight from the inside,” she wrote, and her grandfather kept his shotgun close at hand.
These childhood experiences eventually led Parks, who was born Feb. 4, 1913, to devote her life to gaining equal rights for black people and others suffering injustices.
Her story is now being retold in a one-room exhibit at the Library of Congress. Titled “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” the exhibit displays 90 items. They include photos, videos, pages of handwritten notes and awards Parks received, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Although her activism spanned many decades, it was her arrest for not moving to the back of the bus that day in 1955 for which Parks is most remembered. It resulted in a yearlong refusal by black people to ride Montgomery buses and a court case challenging the city’s law requiring separate seating for black and white riders.
Racial segregation in public buses was ruled unconstitutional nationwide in 1956, two years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in public schools. Both were important steps in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Parks was taught by her grandfather “never to accept mistreatment,” advice she took to heart. Of her bus protest, she wrote: “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore.” When she asked the arresting officer “why we had to be pushed around, he said he didn’t know. ‘The law is the law. You are under arrest.’ “
In a book she wrote for kids, Parks said: “I had no idea … that my small action would help put an end to segregation laws in the South.” But fame came at a price. She and her husband lost their jobs, endured death threats and lived in poverty for years. But through her example, “she helped change the country,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said.
The library’s exhibit may be “sort of heavy” for some kids, said Brett Zongker, a media specialist at the Library of Congress. “But it was her experience.” And he noted that Parks “was all about children, motivating them to achieve their highest potential.” The exhibit includes some of the 500-plus cards and notes kids sent her.
Isabella Sherwood, a sixth-grader at Central Middle School in Edgewater, Maryland, visited with classmates recently. She thought other kids would enjoy the exhibit.
“It was a very important part of history, and it led up to what’s happening today,” she said. “Sometimes people aren’t nice to people of color. That still happens. But we have to try to get along together.”