Rosa Parks exhibit at Library of Congress shows she was no accidental activist

Rosa Parks was no accidental activist
Rosa Parks was no accidental activist 04:36

Our series A More Perfect Union aims to show that what unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us. In this installment, we take a look at a new exhibit about someone who embodied that principle: Rosa Parks.

While everyone knows the story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus 64 years ago, a new exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., tells the full story of her life. Through her own writings, memorabilia and 2,500 photographs, the exhibit shows people that Parks was no accidental activist, "CBS This Morning Saturday" co-host Michelle Miller reports.

Few people in this world have launched a revolution — sitting down. For that reason, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden is giving Parks a closer look. The exhibit, "Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words," reveals a granddaughter of slaves from teen rebel defying injustice to NAACP leader to civil rights icon, Hayden said.

"You see in her own handwriting her thoughts, her inner feelings, and she had such poetry," she said.

Adrienne Cannon curated the collection, which contains more than 7,000 of Parks' writings. "I had been pushed around all my life and I felt at this moment I couldn't take it anymore," one of the Parks' letters read.

Cannon said while writing, often on recycled paper, Parks found her voice, strategizing against segregation.

"It was Mrs. Parks plan all along to do everything she could in order to get equality for African Americans," said Fred Gray, who was fresh out of law school in 1954 when he worked with Parks and the NAACP to counsel blacks jailed under segregation laws. "My first civil rights case was Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old girl who on March 2, 1955 did the same thing that Rosa Parks did, but did it nine months before."

Colvin's case may have set an example, but not the stage. That came December 1, 1955.

"I was on that bus," said Jane Gunter, then a pregnant military wife who is the only other person to admit she was there. "All of a sudden there was a tall man standing in front of me. I stood up and said, 'She can have my seat,' and when I said that he pushed his knees into my knees and said, 'Don't you dare move.'"

When she realized years later what she witnessed, she called to meet Parks. Parks didn't remember her, but when Gunter told the story about the tall man, Parks "instantly said, 'You were there, you were there,'" Gunter recalled.

Parks' conviction launched the yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery.

"They knew that there would be some event that would allow them to put the plans in action," Hayden said. Martin Luther King, Jr. coming to town didn't hurt either.

"At present, we are in the midst of a protest," King said at the time — protest sparked by a woman who never rested, who believed the struggle continues. And now, everyone can see the impact of both her actions and words.

"Her writings are right here with Thomas Jefferson, with Thurgood Marshall, with all these other people, her writings are right here," Hayden said.

At the exhibit, you can also see Parks' family bible, one of the many dresses that she made and the Presidential Medal of Freedom she was awarded at the White House in 1996. The exhibit opens Thursday and is free to the public.