Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The page behind the man behind Rosa Parks

Not being as addicted as some to the NYT opinion pages, I haven't mustered the outrage of some over its decision to designate all of that and much else as a "select" option. Until now. Unless you pay one way or another, you won't be able to see today's important article by Peter Applebome on the story behind that iconic picture of Rosa Parks on the front seat of the bus with an angry-looking white man in the seat behind her.

In the days before "photo-ops," this one was a photo-op. The man, Nicholas C. Chriss, was a UPI reporter. The picture was taken the day after a court order put the Supreme Court's order in the bus desegregation case into effect. Chriss, who died in 1990, wrote in the one brief account he gave,

It was a historic occasion. I was then with the United Press International wire service. A UPI photographer took a picture of Mrs. Parks on the bus. It shows a somber Mrs. Parks seated on the bus looking calmly out the window. Seated just behind her is a hard-eyed white man.

Each anniversary of that day, this photograph is brought out of musty files and used in various publications around the world. But to this day no one has ever made clear that it was a reporter, I, covering this event and sitting behind Mrs. Parks, not some sullen white segregationist! It was a great scoop for me, but Mrs. Parks had little to say. She seemed to want to savor the event alone.

According to historian Douglas Brinkley (writes Applebome), Mrs. Parks was a "reluctant" subject, "but both the journalists and members of the civil rights community wanted an image that would dramatize what had occurred." Dr. King and others took part in photo opportunities on that day as well.

Applebome's story is important because it gets so much right about what really happened. He interviewed 74-year-old Fred Gray, the lawyer who took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. We're reminded, among other things, that Mrs. Parks' refusal to give up her seat was not unprecedented in Montgomery. But as Applebome puts it,

None of that diminishes the achievement of her life, just as, perhaps, the true story of the picture need not detract from its power. It's just a reminder that history is almost always more complicated and surprising than the images that most effectively tell its story.

It's too bad that this story-behind-a-story is so well hidden behind a paywall.

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