Rosa Parks' case shows equal denial of access for all


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NEW YORK — At a time when interest in civil rights memorabilia is rekindled, a lifetime's worth of Rosa Parks' belongings -- among them her Presidential Medal of Freedom -- sits in a New York warehouse, unseen and unsold.

Parks' archives could be worth millions, especially now that 50th anniversaries of the civil rights era are being celebrated and the hunt is on for artifacts to fill a new Smithsonian museum of African-American history.

But a years-long legal fight between Parks' heirs and her friends -- a dispute similar to the court battle among Martin Luther King Jr.'s heirs -- led to the memorabilia being taken away from her home city of Detroit and offered up to the highest bidder.

So far, no high bidder has emerged.

Parks is one of the most beloved women in American history. She became an enduring symbol of the civil rights movement when she refused to cede her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man. That triggered a yearlong bus boycott that helped to dismantle officially sanctioned segregation and lift King to national prominence.

Because of the fight over Parks' will, historians, students of the movement and the general public have had no access to items such as her photographs with presidents, her Congressional Gold Medal, a signed postcard from King, decades of documents from civil rights meetings, and her ruminations about life in the South as a black woman.

Parks wanted people to see her mementos and learn from her life, said Elaine Steele, a longtime friend who heads the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, a foundation Parks co-founded in Detroit in 1987. "In my opinion, it was quite clear what she wanted," Ms. Steele said.

Ms. Steele's lawyer, Steven Cohen, said Parks' heirs and the institute certainly could come to agreement on sending the artifacts to an appropriate institution "if we could close out the estate and get away from" the probate court. He said he hopes to resolve the matter in six months to a year.

Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92, stipulated in her will that the institute bearing her name receive a 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 and furniture. Her nieces and nephews challenged her will, and her archives were seized by a court; a judge ordered it sold in one lump sale.



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