The Man Behind Rosa Parks

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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.

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."

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