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Rosa Parks essay may shed light on legacy

A first-person essay written by Rosa Parks presents a detailed and harrowing account of a young black housekeeper who is nearly raped by a white neighbor.

Looking like a remembrance from Parks' own life, an expert called it an exciting find that might help explain her lifelong advocacy. But on Friday an institute created by Parks disputed that, saying it was hers but a work of fiction.

The six-page document is among thousands of the civil rights activist's personal items currently residing in the offices of Guernsey's Auctioneers, which has been selected by a Michigan court to find an institution to buy and preserve the complete archive.

The Associated Press was provided with some samples of the documents in the archive, including portions of the essay. Archivists who reviewed the documents for Guernsey's provided descriptions of their contents and characterized the encounter as a "near-rape."

A controversial text

Steven G. Cohen, a lawyer for the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Detroit, said people who knew Parks well were aware that she liked to write fictional essays for herself. Parks' friend of 45 years, Elaine Steele, never heard Parks speak of the encounter and was not aware of the document, Cohen said.

"This six-page essay we believe is a work of fiction," said Cohen. "We believe that Mrs. Parks meant for the story to be private. It never should have been part of the memorabilia collection."

Civil rights historian Danielle McGuire, however, called the essay an astounding find. "Rosa Parks was very likely to have encountered this kind of proposition," she said.

It helps explain what triggered Parks' lifelong campaign against the ritualistic rape of black women by white men, said McGuire, whose book "At the Dark End of the Street" examines how economic intimidation and sexual violence were used to derail the freedom movement and how it went unpunished during the Jim Crow era.

"I thought it was because of the stories that she had heard. But this gives a much more personal context to that," said McGuire, an assistant professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit. McGuire said she had never heard that Parks wrote fictional essays.

"It would be nice to see evidence of that. She never talks about that in any of her work out there," said McGuire. "It would be more likely that the protectors of her legacy are trying to protect her respectability."

Parks writes in the essay: "He offered me a drink of whiskey, which I promptly and vehemently refused . . . He moved nearer to me and put his hand on my waist. I was very frightened by now." "He liked me . . . he didn't want me to be lonely and would I be sweet to him. He had money to give me for accepting his attentions," she wrote."I was ready to die but give my consent never. Never, never."

More to her story

Most people know the story of Parks, a black, middle-aged seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955.

Guernsey's president Arlan Ettinger said her personal papers reveal a much more complex individual, one who spent a lifetime fighting for racial equality and against sexual violence targeting black women.

Parks is credited with inspiring the civil rights movement with her act of defiance on Dec. 1, 1955, that led to the Supreme Court outlawing segregation on buses. She received the nation's two highest honors in her lifetime, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.

She died in 2005 at age 92, leaving the trove of personal correspondence, papers relating to her work for the Montgomery branch of the NAACP, tributes from presidents and world leaders, school books, family bibles, clothing, furniture and more -- about 8,000 items in all.

Parks published two memoirs but by then, said McGuire, "her story was pretty much well-rehearsed, and limited to her time in Montgomery and the bus incident."

"Her story had become mythic and iconic . . . I can't imagine what that felt like for her to have a whole history of activism and political work erased and turned almost into a cartoon character," said McGuire.

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