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Rosa Parks is one of the most recognizable activists of the 20th century, but many people only viewed a glimpse of her life.
Although Parks has been called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” her historical contributions have been shrunken to only include the moment she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery and the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott that came after.
But the bus boycott wasn’t Parks’ entrance into activism, it was her continuation of a legacy that empowered Black men, women and youth. Nearly 12 years before her historic bus ride, she became a sexual assault investigator for the NAACP and sought justice for Recy Taylor, a Black woman who was kidnapped and raped by seven white men in Abbeville, Ala., in September 1943. And 12 years prior to Taylor’s rape, Parks and her husband, Raymond, organized in defense of “Scottsboro Boys,” the nine Black teenagers who were accused of raping two white women in a northeast Alabama town.
Historians such as Dr. Jeanne Theoharis have written about Parks’ consistent rebellion against white supremacy. Dr. Stephanie Y. Evans, professor and director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University, explored Parks’ autobiography and family memoirs for her book “Black Women’s Yoga History: Memoirs of Inner Peace,” which published on March 1. The narratives gave Evans an intimate portrait of how Parks endured the gravity of the stress of being a Black woman and an activist.
“While the story of Rosa Parks inspires awe and inspiration for her heroic bravery as a Civil Rights Movement leader, we must also acknowledge the toll that the struggle took on her personal life and mental health,” Evans wrote in chapter 6 of her book. “Only by looking closely at the impact of stressors on the life of Mrs. Parks can we truly appreciate the significance of her ability to continue to seek balance after having come through unimaginable persecution.”
In 11-page handwritten note displayed by the Library of Congress, Parks reveals she was also a victim of sexual assault in 1931. Evans wrote that in her memoir, Parks stated she felt tense and nervous during the boycott. She received death threats and lost her job. Her husband became depressed after also losing his job and coped with alcohol. Her mother’s health was also failing. Parks also had on-and-off health problems throughout her life.
Parks felt “lynched in my spirit,” while experiencing these stressors of life under Jim Crow. But Evans credits Parks’ faith, yoga practice and vegetarian diet as the reasons why Parks lived to be 92 while continuing her activism.
In Parks’ own memoir, titled “My Life,” Parks writes that her mother instilled in her the importance of daily stretching and exercising as a way to alleviate Illnesses during her childhood. These exercises became the foundation of what eventually evolved into Parks’ yoga practice. In “Our Auntie Rosa: The Family of Rosa Parks Remembers Her Life and Lessons,” Evans learned that Parks went to yoga classes along with her nieces and nephews.
Parks’ niece Sheila McCauley wrote in the family memoir that Parks was very receptive during the class despite typically being the oldest student in the room. Parks became a lover of yoga poses and practiced at her house often.
In the family memoir, Evans said McCauley beautifully illustrated how Parks found peace through yoga.
“The exercises help clear her mind, the stretches keep her body limber,” McCauley said. “In her space on the floor, she takes sanctuary, be it at a studio under the voice of an instructor or in the sunlight of her living room. Inner peace and clarity have always been important to her.”
This wasn’t a gift Parks’ kept to herself. In 2019, the Library of Congress displayed a photo of Parks teaching a demonstration of the thunderbolt yoga pose during a class in Detroit in March 1973. A photo of Parks in bow pose was made available through the Library of Congress in 2020. Evans said Parks just turned 60 at the time. Even after her death, Parks’ legacy is still teaching youth the importance of yoga and other exercises, like karate, through The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, created in February 1987.
“Rosa Parks shared yoga with her family and her community, and her civil rights legacy clearly exemplifies many yogic principles of inner peace and global peace advocacy,” Evans wrote. “The principles of the institute remain relevant and continue to address issues of peace. When nations continue to escalate violence and aggression, Mrs. Parks’ legacy of peace advocacy still remains essential.”