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WASHINGTON – Most of us know the story: On Dec. 1, 1955, a soft-spoken seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger in Alabama's capital city.
This act of resistance jump started the Montgomery bus boycott and helped spark the modern civil rights struggle. But historians say this simplified version of history obscures the truth about the courageous woman behind the movement.
Now, for the first time since her death in 2005, the public can see a treasure trove of Parks' writings and photographs at the Library of Congress. Taken together, the 80 boxes of possessions paint a complex portrait of a small woman with a big voice. Here are five highlights from the collection:
1. Her decision to stay seated was not entirely spontaneous
Parks and her husband were members of the local NAACP and had already been discussing a bus boycott. And contrary to popular belief, she didn’t give up her seat because she was physically tired. Following her arrest, she wrote: “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Parks said that her feet might have been tired that day, "but when I made the decision that I was going to sit down and not give up my seat, my soul was rested."
"She was never tired," her friend Elaine Steele told America Tonight. "That is the myth that people have told for years, that she was tired."
2. Parks was taught to take a stand as a child
In her notes, Parks recalls desperate hours as a child, keeping vigil with her grandfather as he guarded their home against Ku Klux Klan members.
"I stayed awake many nights keeping vigil with Grandpa," she wrote. "I wanted to see him kill a Ku Kluxer. He declared the first to invade our home would surely die. This was when I was 6 or 7."
Later in life, she reflected on the pain inflicted by Jim Crow racism in the South, writing in the note above: "He walks us on a tight rope from birth to the end of lifes span…Little children are so conditioned early to learn their places in the segregated pattern...”
3. Parks was a lifelong activist
Seen here with civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael, Parks continued to be an activist throughout her life and supported leaders of the Black Power movement.
"She was born into a tradition of rebelling," said Adrienne Cannon, who curated Parks' papers.
4. Parks tracked indignities, large and small
Parks documented the everyday indignities of life for black men and woman in the Jim Crow South. In this note to a friend she explains that mainstream newspapers' "colored" editions existed because “white readers would resent reading the title Miss and Mrs. preceding colored women’s names.”
5. Parks made some amazing pancakes
Not everything in the Parks collection is related to the civil rights movement. Many of her artifacts are mundane odds and ends, like her recipe for “featherlite” pancakes, scribbled on the back of an envelope.
We tested out the recipe, and the results were delicious. The pancakes were tender, light and fluffy with a pleasant peanut flavor.
The collection of some 7,500 manuscripts and 2,500 photographs is on loan to the Library of Congress for the next 10 years. During that time, curators will attempt to digitize many of the documents, giving us all the chance to know the real Rosa Parks.