On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She continues to be celebrated as a heroine for civil rights in American history.
The Parks Institute, a non-profit organization based in Michigan, owns the name and likeness of Parks, who passed away on Oct. 24, 2005 at age 92.
Target sells several pieces of merchandise honoring Parks’ memory, including several books about her, a television movie called “The Rosa Parks Story” and a plaque with a picture of Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Parks has been praised by Congress as the “first lady of civil rights” for her valiant efforts against racial injustices.
The Parks Institute, which filed the $20 million suit in 2013 in Alabama, claimed Target “used Rosa Parks'[s] name, likeness, and image to sell products and did promote and sell products using said name, likeness, and image for Defendant’s own commercial advantage.” None of the products contain any Target logos or branding.
Target pointed to a similar case that brought into question the sale of Tiger Woods posters winning the Masters because this was considered a “historic event in the world of sports” and Parks’ life symbolized significant importance in the Civil Rights movement.
“If the First Amendment interests in a golf tournament preclude the right of publicity liability for a poster about that tournament, the First Amendment interests in the Rosa Parks story preclude liability for a poster about that story and the story of the modern Civil Rights movement,” the corporation said.
Chief United States District Judge W. Keith Watkins agreed with the retailer, saying, “the Parks Institute is mistaken”:
“The depiction of Rosa Parks’s life story without the Parks Institute’s consent does not violate the Parks Institute’s ownership rights to Rosa Parks’s name or likeness,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “To quote from one of the biographical works at issue, ‘Rosa Parks is ‘perhaps the most iconic heroine of the civil rights movement.’ And, as both parties agree, one cannot talk about the Civil Rights movement without including Rosa Parks. The importance of her story serves as an apt reminder of why First Amendment protection for biographical works is so vital.”
Target won the first suit and the Parks Institute filed an appeal in Michigan. Circuit Judge Robin Rosenbaum last week came to the same ruling, saying that Parks’ life and memory are matters of public interest and people should have access to information about her life:
“The use of Rosa Parks’s name and likeness in the books, movie, and plaque is necessary to chronicling and discussing the history of the Civil Rights Movement matters quintessentially embraced and protected by Michigan’s qualified privilege,” the judge wrote. “Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a discussion of the Civil Rights Movement without reference to Parks and her role in it. As a result, all six books, the movie, and the plaque find protection in Michigan’s qualified privilege protecting matters of public interest.”
Parks: A Powerful Woman Then and Now
The plaque sold by Target features the word “CHANGE,” as well as a quote from Parks: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically I was not old I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Despite common folklore portraying Parks as a frail, quiet old woman, she was actually a “seasoned activist,” Dr. Adolphus Belk Jr. told DiversityInc in a recent interview. Belk, a political science professor, serves as the director of the African American Studies Program at Winthrop University. He recently spoke on MSNBC about issues regarding Black women voters.
“[Parks] didn’t just fail to move because she was too tired to comply,” Belk explained. “She wasn’t this sort of delicate, passionate person in it all. She had a great deal of agency. She had a lot of fire. She was someone who had a strong mind, who had a long commitment to civil justice and civil rights. And who had already been a leader in the NAACP in Montgomery.”
Belks also told DiversityInc that he sees similarities between the battle fought by Parks and the activism going on now in the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that criticisms of the BLM movement “sort of harken back to the things that people said during the mid-to-late 1960s about the civil rights movement itself.”
“So in some ways we’re watching the same film,” he explained.
In her ruling, Judge Rosenbaum also highlighted Parks’ bravery and her importance in American history as well as today.
“Parks’s refusal to cede ground in the face of continued injustice has made her among the most revered heroines of our national history; her role in American history cannot be over-emphasized,” she said.