Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Man Behind Rosa Parks

December 7, 2005

Our Towns

The Man Behind Rosa Parks

RIDGEWOOD, N.J., Dec. 5 - Almost everyone has seen the famous study in black and white, one of those rare photographs that entered the collective memory as a snapshot not of a moment but of an era and maybe something more. It's now on almost any bus in New York City and many of its suburbs, an invitation not just to remember but to reflect.

At the front of a bus, previously reserved for white riders, is Rosa Parks, face turned to the window to her left, seemingly lost in thought as she rides through Montgomery, Ala. In the seat behind her is a young white man looking to his right, his face hard, almost expressionless. The two, the only figures visible on the bus, seem a few inches and a universe apart, each seemingly looking at and for something utterly different.

Everyone knows her. No one knows him.

Except for Catherine Chriss, his daughter. And, like his identity, hidden in plain sight, unknown even to the veterans of that era still living, what's most telling about the real story of the black woman and the white man is how much of what we think we know is what we read into the picture, not what's there.

The man on the bus, Nicholas C. Chriss, was not some irritated Alabama segregationist preserved for history but a reporter working at the time for United Press International out of Atlanta. He died of an aneurysm at 62 in 1990. Mrs. Parks died at 92 on Oct. 24, a few weeks short of the 50th anniversary of her refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white man.

Ms. Chriss, a journalist now raising her three young daughters, wrote a poem last month about the picture and the way her father became "the white man. The angry man. The one who looks like he's a banker. But isn't."

In the last few years, she's been amazed at how visible the picture has become.

"It's everywhere," said Ms. Chriss, whose family moved to Ridgewood from California in 2004. "Apple used it in their campaign, 'Think Different.' A friend called and said she saw the poster on the bus, the whole bus. It's on the bus my daughter Alison takes to school now. When Alison was in second grade, her classroom had that border with African-American heroes and leaders and there's the picture. She told her teacher that was her granddad up there. She didn't believe her."

Mr. Chriss, who also worked for The Los Angeles Times and The Houston Chronicle, publicly disclosed his role in the picture just once. It was three paragraphs in the middle of a 2,183-word article he wrote for The Chronicle in 1986 about his experiences covering the civil rights movement.

He explained that the picture was taken on Dec. 21, 1956, the day after the United States Supreme Court ruled Montgomery's segregated bus system illegal. (Actually, the ruling had come a month earlier, but it was not until Dec. 20 that the district court entered the order putting it into effect.) He said that he boarded the bus in downtown Montgomery and that he and Mrs. Parks were the only riders up front.

He wrote: "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."

But his role in the picture was not included in his obituary, and interviews with almost a dozen veterans of that era - historians; reporters; photographers; book publishers; the Montgomery civil rights lawyer, Fred Gray, who represented Mrs. Parks in court - did not turn up a single one who knew the man's identity.

Still, if little known, the history of the picture is explored in at least one source, the biography of Rosa Parks by Douglas Brinkley, first published in 2000 as part of the Penguin Lives series of biographies.

Mr. Brinkley said Mrs. Parks told him that she had left her home at the Cleveland Courts housing project specifically for a picture on a bus, and that the idea was for her to be seated in the front of the bus with a white man behind. Similar photo opportunities were arranged for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others during the day, he said.

Mr. Chriss then agreed to sit behind her for the purpose of the picture. Mr. Brinkley does not identify Mr. Chriss in the book and says that a reporter and two photographers from Look magazine arranged for the picture. He said Mrs. Parks told him she was reluctant to take part in the picture, but both the journalists and members of the civil rights community wanted an image that would dramatize what had occurred.

"It was completely a 100 percent staged event," Mr. Brinkley said. "There was nothing random about it."

But then the images and history of that era, so stark and powerful on their own, are seldom so simple. For starters, many people assume the famous picture of Mrs. Parks captures the events of Dec. 1, 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on a packed bus to a white man. Not true.

The other famous images of her, a mug shot and a picture of her being fingerprinted, don't date to Dec. 1, 1955, either. They were taken on Feb. 22, 1956, after about 100 black Montgomery residents were indicted on charges that they violated a local antiboycott statute.

Mrs. Parks was not the first black bus rider in Montgomery to refuse to give up her seat. Two other women, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, had done it in previous months, but Mrs. Parks's case became the one the legal challenge was based upon. The triumphant case from Montgomery that declared the city's segregated bus system illegal was not based on her case, but on that of four other plaintiffs, including Ms. Colvin and Ms. Smith.

And rather than a simple seamstress who dared to "think different," Mrs. Parks was a longtime N.A.A.C.P. activist who went to the famous Highlander Folk School to learn about social change and lunched regularly with Mr. Gray, the civil rights lawyer.

None of that diminishes the achievement or 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.

Mr. Gray, now 74, says the picture reflects reality even if the moment it captures wasn't entirely real.
"What it says is true," he said, "that 381 days of walking had accomplished something historic so that instead of her getting up to give a white man her seat, instead the white man was sitting behind her on the bus. It was staged, but I don't think it inaccurately represented anything."

He added: "There have been so many misstatements and inaccuracies about the whole movement, to see something staged does not bother me at all."

In the end, the reality of the picture may be a matter more for journalists than historians to ponder - staging a picture today without identifying the participants would be viewed as unethical, but it was more acceptable then.

Ms. Chriss, who said she always thought the picture was, in effect, a photo-op, said she thought her father's identity should be known, not to give him a spot in history and certainly not to detract from the picture's power, but because in the end it tells what really happened in a picture that's become a part of history in itself.

"I wanted people to know there was a story behind the man and a story behind the photograph," she said. "I don't think he'd care about being known. It's not a photo about him. But it makes me proud to know he was a big part of history. Without him, that would not be the photo that wakes everyone up to the changes in our history."

E-mail: peappl@nytines.com

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