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Rosa Parks Centennial -- Untold Story Clouds Legacy

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I get to tell a little-known story on TV this weekend.

Just ahead of the centenary of Rosa Parks' birth, when she will be feted throughout the nation as "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement," I report for PBS on a terrible injustice being done to her memory.2013-01-30-RosaFingprntd2Grimace.jpg

The U.S. Senate has designated that day, Monday February 4, as Rosa Parks Day "to inspire all people of the United States" but meanwhile, seven years after her death, her own records of her extraordinary life lie hidden and inaccessible to the public and scholars alike, in a drab New York City warehouse.

In a screengrab here from my broadcast (on "Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly" -- check local billings for airtime this weekend) I am surrounded by boxes in that warehouse, containing some of the estimated 8,000 items that comprise this sequestered collection.

2013-01-30-DTinWarehouseBxDr.jpgAnd hers was indeed an extraordinary life, marked by much more accomplishment (and many more surprises) than purely her brave and famous triggering of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man.

The full details of her life, each side of that history-making day, are captured in diaries and journals and in extensive correspondence with friends, family and the many political leaders she came to know and maintain contact with. There are also many unpublished private photographs.

Julian Bond, the longtime Chairman of the NAACP (and now its Chairman Emeritus and a Distinguished Professor at American University) wants access to those records, like many a writer on civil rights history does, but they are being "held hostage," in his words, by a firm of Manhattan auctioneers, Guernsey's. A probate court has ordered their sale, in order to provide funds for a financial settlement between feuding parties in a dispute over Mrs Parks' will.

Bond told me:

"We need to know the truth about Rosa Parks, what kind of person she was, what kind of a fighter she was. I'm interested in the whole of Rosa Parks, and that wholeness is lying in an auction house and I'm not able to get at it. She had a long life after [the bus protest] and before it, when she did many other things that were courageous and brave."

I relate in the PBS program that, for instance, Mrs Parks -- surprisingly to some -- became involved in the Black Power movement in the 1960s, putting herself in a more militant camp than her Bus Boycott contemporary, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and was an admirer of both Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (an admiration that in the latter case was fulsomely returned). Another historian, Dr. Jeanne Theoharis (author of the new biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks) tells me: "That part of her history is much less known ... we're not used to seeing that".

The Rosa Parks papers -- which are being "bundled" for sale into a single package along with her everyday possessions like clothes and jewelry -- have not attracted a buyer in the five years since Guernsey's took control of them. The company's president, Arlan Ettinger told me "a price tag of $10 million" is their considered assessment as an auctioneer's valuation.

The sheer size of that asking price has operated as a big disincentive for any institute of African-American history to make an offer. Says Bond: "I think she would be horrified. I think she'd be amazed to find out that money stands in the way of the public knowing more about her."

Watch the full story at the "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly" site.

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.