It was an electric day in Detroit for those passing through Cobo Hall at a NAACP celebration dinner in April of 1995. Rosa Parks and her niece, Urana McCauley, had come for the event following the death of McCauley’s grandmother. At just 19 years old, McCauley was in awe. The black political elite of the decade filled the room. John Conyers walked the hall. Kweisi Mfume, the organization’s sitting president, gave a fiery speech, inspiring the crowd. It was a happy reprieve from the darkness surrounding death—a spectacle of black joy.
But McCauley hadn’t come to an important realization yet. Her aunt was as important as any black leader present. McCauley would soon uncover the real story of Rosa Parks: a more complicated journey than is usually told. In doing so, McCauley was forced to confront the lingering prevalence of the issues Parks fought more than six decades ago—injustices that remain to this day.
McCauley’s revelation of the real, nuanced version of her aunt’s story began to take shape that day in Detroit in 1995. When she and her aunt finally left the hall and sat in a golf cart arranged for their travel, a passing black family stopped Parks, screaming at the top of their lungs: “That’s Rosa Parks!” Teenage Urana was bewildered. By that point Parks was just her “Auntie Rosa,” a steely-haired woman, aged by decades working for the average black person, and slowly fading from medical issues.
McCauley’s epiphany was setting in.
“She was like Michael Jackson. She was a superstar. I sat back and said, ‘Oh My God. Wait a minute. I’m related to Rosa Parks,’” McCauley, now 41, recalls from her home outside of Detroit. Before that moment, she hadn’t considered much of Parks’ long history.
That moment in Detroit set the momentum for what would be countless cross-generational conversations between the two. Parks told her niece about the fight against voter suppression—how she worked to register black families to vote and against the literacy tests used in the Jim Crow South to deny African-Americans their right to vote. McCauley herself called Parks after she registered to vote, by then a simple task, to express gratitude for her aunt’s work on the cause.
The pair discussed how Parks was ostracized by black peers after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, her descent into obscurity in Virginia, her eventual move to Detroit to work for then–U.S. House Representative John Conyers, and her 15 years working with the NAACP, including as a sexual investigator on cases like the brutal rape of Recy Taylor. Along with Parks’ many achievements, she also shared the challenges she faced along the way, including the death threats levied at her because of her work.
The official historical narrative doesn’t often offer multiple views into Parks’ life after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955, one of the episodes that kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It’s far easier to remember her as a patriot, unpainted by the pain America has unleashed on the black body.
Often, McCauley says, Parks’ spirit can seem co-opted, gentrified by onlookers who have never even tried to know her full story. This angers her. In one way, this is the side-effect of a social media era, in which can give a boombox to any voice wanting it and shaping complex people into flat icons. But, despite these challenges, it also amplifies McCauley’s voice and, in turn, Parks’ full story.
“Her narrative has gotten lost,” McCauley says, noting how many of the fights Park waged are still ongoing battles. The indiscriminate killings of black people by the police; voter suppression that keeps poor and black people away from the ballots; and the recent report from the Eisenhower Foundation that found that 50 years after the Kerner Commission, a 426-page report explaining that black protest happens in response to economic oppression, black people are no better off than in 1968—these were all issues that Parks, before and after the bus, wanted to solve.
“There’s this children’s tale about [Parks] being this old lady that sat down on the bus and that was it,” McCauley says. “A lot of it can be very belittling or judgemental—people who don’t really know her or read up on her have this idea of her. Maybe it was instilled in them in school, that children’s tale. She was very outspoken and courageous, which made her very alone at times. People labeled her a ‘trouble maker’ or a ‘rebel.’”
After the boycott of 1955–1956, Parks’ life started to crumble. Her political life led to fights with co-workers, and, for a period, she was jobless after leaving her position as a seamstress at Montgomery Fair department store. “She got a lot of attention for that arrest,” McCauley said. “She was disheartened that her black co-workers did not want to speak to her. If you were doing anything for change you were an outcast. Jim Crow conditioned black folk to think this was the best life they were going to get. People just stopped speaking to her until she was let go.”
Parks’ husband, Raymond, quit his job after a rule was established that Parks couldn’t be spoken about in the workplace. They stayed in Montgomery for a decade, but could barely make ends meet. Parks wasn’t able to provide for herself, something she detailed in a journal McCauley found after her death in 2005. “She struggled for a good 10 years after that arrest,” McCauley said.
The attention her protest garnered didn’t stop following her family. It was an odd impasse that tugged at her for years: Here she was, broke, in a town she wanted to help, with black people she wanted to be free, only to be subjugated by the weight of the state, the pain that comes with prominent activism.
“People didn’t understand what she went through,” McCauley says. “It was never about her. It was about changing the law.” Or, more fundamentally, reshaping the system that was keeping black people poor and oppressed.
Parks and her husband were forced to move to Hampton, Virginia, for work, a disheartening moment for Parks, who had to leave her extended family behind. In Alabama, Parks had searched for months for a job as a maid, while her husband applied for janitor jobs. Both were denied. Hampton would mean a new start, an escape from the death threats, from poverty, and from Parks’ battles with stomach ulcers, for which she couldn’t afford medicine. Finally, in Virginia, Parks found work as a seamstress.
After a decade of struggle, Parks found work in the office of newly-elected Michigan Representative John Conyers in 1965. As a receptionist in Conyers’ office, Parks’ began to put down roots in Detroit, engaging with the community. By then she was an icon, a “Mother for the Civil Rights Movement.” Her protests (like picketing in front of General Motors against the closing of five manufacturing plants) continued until her retirement in 1988. In an interview with CNN upon Parks’ death, Conyers reflected on what it was like working with her all those years.
“You treated her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene—just a very special person,” he said. “There was only one Rosa Parks”
In the National Archives, there’s a passage from a Parks diary entry that reads “people would look at me differently if they knew the truth.” McCauley says she didn’t know what this meant at first. Perhaps Parks herself understood what can only become clear by knowing her full story: if more people understood Parks as a three-dimensional hero and fighter, the brave woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus and who continued to risk her life for black empowerment, American history would be all the richer. And maybe, the issues for which she sacrificed so much could finally become a thing of the past.