Rosa Parks Account Describes Attempted Rape

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Michele Norris talks with historian and Rosa Parks biographer Douglas Brinkley. They discuss civil rights icon Rosa Parks and her six-page handwritten account about surviving a rape attempt by a white neighbor in 1931. They discuss how this account, if true, would impact her legacy.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris.

We're learning more about the life of civil rights icon Rosa Parks as auctioneers try to find an appropriate home for thousands of her personal items. Among the most astounding findings: a six-page, handwritten essay that details a first-person account of a black housekeeper who was almost raped by the white man who employed her.

Though there have been many biographies in close examinations of her life, this essay is a new discovery. And it raises questions about whether she was actually writing about herself.

For more, we turn to Douglas Brinkley. He's a professor of history at Rice University. He's also the author of the biography "Rosa Parks: A Life." Professor Brinkley, thanks for being with us.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: First, tell us more about the six-page essay and the story that it details.

BRINKLEY: Well, it's an astounding document. I wrote a biography of Rosa Parks, and I never knew about this attempted rape. And it really tells the story - an all-too familiar one - of a white man in Alabama that she was doing domestic work for, trying to offer her whiskey and trying to, certainly, sexually harass her. And she interpreted it as an attempted rape.

So this letter that's just come forward now in the said auction, I find it to be an extraordinarily important document. And it just is another piece of understanding that Rosa Parks wasn't just a December 1, 1955, person who got tired and wouldn't give up her bus seat. She was a longtime fighter against racism and gender inequality.

NORRIS: In that letter, she writes - or in that essay, she says: I was ready to die but give my consent? Never, NEVER, never. And one of those nevers is - the second one there of the three is capitalized.

We know that Rosa Parks occasionally wrote fiction, and some people believe that she might have been writing about herself. And others say that, well, this might be something that's rooted in the truth, perhaps, but might also be an act of fiction. Where do you come down on this? Do you recognize the handwriting? Do you think that this is something that she was - where she was actually writing about herself?

BRINKLEY: It's definitely Rosa Parks' handwriting. It rings true. I could see why she wouldn't have included it in a memoir because, constantly, when I spoke with Mrs. Parks, it was all about her husband, Raymond. She wanted to make sure his feelings weren't hurt.

After the Montgomery bus boycott, he had a nervous breakdown. He also turned to drinking. They were forced to leave - the Parkes - Montgomery, and moved to Detroit. And this kind of revelation, a memoir, would have upset her husband, Raymond, tremendously.

In her later years, she created a Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, wanting to make sure her husband got a lot of credit, because she got to travel all over for the NAACP and give speeches, and he had to run the household - in reversal of typical roles. So she wanted to make sure that he was seen as a hero in history. And he would not have liked it if she was telling people about a white man trying to rape her. It would have been too much for his nerves, in my opinion.

NORRIS: That white man who is described in this essay, when did this allegedly happen? And will people perhaps be trying to figure out who he might be?

BRINKLEY: She was working as a housekeeper in 1931, and Rosa Parks was doing a lot of what they'd call domestic household work. She was very good at sewing, cooking, etc. And according to what's coming forward of this document, he ended up making this move on her - I guess more than a move; an attempted rape. And I'm sure she didn't know how to process it.

You know, we forget in 1931, the Jim Crow laws were all over the South. What possible form could Rosa Parks have come forward with to reveal that this incident happened? She did the smart thing, which was to put it down and document it for history.

That incredible line in there about never, never - there is no better illustration of her steely determination to maintain pride in the face of bigotry and racism in criminal activity against humanity, in the Deep South.

NORRIS: Douglas Brinkley, I could talk to you all day, but I've got to let you go. Thank you very much.

BRINKLEY: Thank you.

NORRIS: That's Douglas Brinkley. He's a professor of history at Rice University. He's also the author of the biography "Rosa Parks: A Life." Rosa Parks died in 2005, at the age of 92.

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