Rosa Parks at a beauty salon in Miami, 1986. (Rosa Parks Papers/Library of Congress)

Rosa Parks, the late great civil rights activist and author, is hard to square in the pantheon of American heroes. Known for a simple, unforgettable act of defiance which spurred the Montgomery bus boycott and effectively kickstarted the Civil Rights Movement in 1955, she lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity, employed as a secretary to Michigan Congressman John Conyers until retiring in 1988. As she remained active in the ongoing struggle for racial justice, reproductive rights, and housing equality, Parks’ life was marked by hardship and pain, chronic illness and lack of resources. In later years, she donated most of her income from speaking engagements to the scholarship fund she co-founded.

Polaroid portrait of Rosa Parks, 1980s. (Rosa Parks Papers/Library of Congress)

Rosa Parks posing with children and worker at a restaurant, 1980s.  (Rosa Parks Papers/Library of Congress)
 

Polaroids, 1980s. (Rosa Parks Papers/Library of Congress)

These snapshots, excerpted from the Rosa Parks Papers collection at the Library of Congress, portray a humble woman, accepting but never fully at ease with her role as a living icon. Family portraits, candid moments at public events, posing with strangers or other inspirational figures like Mohammed Ali and Stephen Hawking, Parks appears comfortably self aware and astute. Whimsical even. But in her expression is an interior poise which hints at the struggle she has endured. As if she’s in on something no one else sees. Maybe that’s just the wisdom of age. Or maybe it’s the composure of woman whose hardship remained wholly her own.

With niece, Susan McCauley, and baby, 1970s. (Rosa Parks Papers/Library of Congress)

Rosa Parks cooking at a McDonald’s restaurant grill. 1980s. (Rosa Parks Papers/Library of Congress)

(L) Rosa Parks with visitors at her home in Detroit, Michigan, 1993. / (R) Group portrait with Parks, Elaine Steele and other women at an event. 1980s. (Rosa Parks Papers/Library of Congress)

Article originally published at Timeline.com

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