Rosa Parks' family praises Library of Congress exhibit

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The niece of Rosa Parks and author of a new book about the civil rights icon praised the Library of Congress for displaying personal effects of the former Detroiter.

Sheila McCauley Keys and Eddie Allen Jr. wrote "Our Auntie Rosa" that went on sale in January and donated a copy of her book to the Library of Congress. She was in town to talk about Parks and sign copies of her book.

"Her story keeps resonating because it is what's happening currently in the country — it is relevant — it is the same story. People's mindsets have changed, laws have changed but we're kind of doing the same doing that we've been doing," Keys said in a Detroit News interview at the Library of Congress.

Keys, who lives in Northville, will be in England later this year and in October, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit is planning an event to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Parks' death, Keys said. Parks laid in state at the museum as well as inthe U.S. Capitol.

December will mark the 60th anniversary of Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger, helping to spark the modern civil rights movement.

Keys told stories about Parks at the event. She was a "pack rat" who saved almost everything, even hate letters she received and lots of books, since she didn't have access to them in the Jim Crow South.

In February, some of her personal items including papers, photographs and keepsakes of Parks, were opened to the public and researchers at the Library of Congress, revealing new details of her struggles.

The items have been locked away for more than eight years after an estate fight tied up their sale after she died in Detroit in October 2005.

The opening of the collection to researchers was tied to the 102nd anniversary of Parks' birth, and two dozen of the thousands of items were displayed in three glass cases March 2-30 at the library's Jefferson Building. Other items were added March 7 to an ongoing display about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and will run through Sept. 12.

Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white passenger on Dec. 1, 1955, led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a key event in the civil rights movement. The records in the collection from letters and manuscripts to other personal items help to dispel the myth that Parks act was random or a single act of opposition, researchers said.

"I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn't take it any more," Parks says in one handwritten note about the bus protest.

She says in another note that the 1955 killing of Chicago teenager Emmett Till, who was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he flirted with a white cashier, helped inspire her decision to refuse to give up her seat.

"This case could be multiplied many times in the South," Parks wrote, saying she knew of many African-Americans killed "without any arrests or investigation and with little or no publicity."

Parks moved to Detroit after the Montgomery bus incident and worked as a secretary and aide to Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, after he was elected in 1964. She retired in 1988 and received nearly every significant U.S. honor. In 2013, Congress dedicated a statue of Parks in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall — one of the nation's rarest honors.

In September, the Library of Congress said it was receiving the items on a 10-year loan from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which acquired the items for an undisclosed price last year. Buffett is the son of Warren Buffett, the billionaire CEO of investment firm Berkshire Hathaway.

The Library of Congress says the collection includes 7,500 papers and manuscripts, 2,500 photographs, a few dozen books and awards Parks received, including the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Library of Congress plans to digitize the entire collection and put it online within a year.

Other items include a postcard to Parks from civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957 and a receipt paid to Montgomery County, Alabama, that showed she paid a $1.50 poll tax in January 1957 for the right to vote.