Rosa Parks gave the first installment of her papers to Wayne State University’s Walter Reuther Library in 1976, explaining, I do hope that my contribution can be made use of.
Thirty-five years later, nobody is making use of the rest of her papers.
After her death in 2005, all of her effects and the rights to license her name became the subject of a dispute between Parks’ nieces and nephews and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which she co-founded in 1987 with longtime friend Elaine Steele.
In 2007, a Michigan probate court awarded custody of Parks’ possessions to Guernsey’s Auctioneers and instructed that the collection be sold in its entirety to a single buyer, with the proceeds from the sale divided, in an undisclosed settlement, between the litigating parties.
All of the materials – political documents, letters and photos, along with Parks’ clothes, awards and other personal items – were collected, inventoried and taken to New York for auction.
A month ago, Steele challenged the court’s actions before the Michigan Supreme Court, landing the auction back in the news.
In four years, Guernsey’s has not found an individual or institution that can afford the likely cost of the Rosa Parks archive: reputedly $8 million to $10 million. During that time, Guernsey’s has shown selected materials to prospective buyers but has refused scholars even controlled access to what it advertises as one of the most important historical collections of the civil rights era.
It is unthinkable that a collection of Thomas Jefferson’s or Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers could be locked away for four years, let alone put up for auction without a single scholar being allowed a preliminary view to assess its value to American culture and history. Indeed, scholarly appraisal would be assumed to increase the importance and value of the material.
But Rosa Parks has been reduced to a children’s book hero – lauded as the mother of the civil rights movement, not treated as a serious political thinker in her own right.
Through the hype surrounding the posthumous sale of her possessions, which include her party gowns, glasses and sewing basket, she has been transformed into some sort of celebrity commodity.
This treatment is at odds with how Parks lived. One of her greatest commitments was to the preservation and dissemination of African- American history. She read voluminously and participated in countless programs, school initiatives and museum exhibitions on black history. She founded an institute for young people to encourage leadership and help expose them to black history.
Parks spent her life working against the idea that wealth should determine access, laboring for decades to expose and rectify racial and economic injustice. Long before she catalyzed the Montgomery bus boycott, Parks organized to free the Scottsboro boys, worked through the NAACP to address white brutality and legal lynching, and participated in a Highlander Folk School workshop on school desegregation.
After she and her husband lost their jobs and had to leave Alabama in August 1957, Parks worked for two decades in Rep. John Con- yers’ Detroit office on issues such as welfare and public housing. She served on the People’s Tribunal after the 1967 Detroit riot, attended the 1972 convention on black politics in Gary, Ind., and joined the movement against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Yet the substance of her political commitments has taken a back seat to her icon- ization.
Guernsey President Arlan Ettinger has said that the auction house has been entrusted with an honor and responsibility. Yet its refusal to allow scholars to evaluate Parks’ papers suggests that the court and the auction house are more concerned with the commercial value of its holdings than the responsibility of historical preservation and dissemination.
The good news, Ettinger said recently, is that every institution we’ve approached desperately wants it; the bad news is they don’t have the money to afford it. Institutions such as Wayne State University, Alabama State University (which, through the actions of many faculty members, played a crucial role in the bus boycott) and the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture would be logical homes for Parks’ papers. But none can compete in such an auction.
And so Parks’ ideas and life’s work sit in a New York warehouse, waiting to be purchased.
It is hard to imagine that Rosa Parks would have wanted access to papers documenting her lifetime of political activism available only to a buyer who can afford the exorbitant price. It is even harder to believe that our society allows this for our history.