Posted on December 12, 2005

Photo Captured an Era, But Not a Moment

Peter Applebome, New York Times, December 9, 2005

Almost everyone has seen the famous study in black and white, one of those rare photographs that enters 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, where black people had never ridden before, is Rosa Parks, head slightly bowed, face turned to the window to her left, seemingly lost in thought as she rides through Montgomery, Ala. In the seat behind her, like the symbol of the old segregated order, 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 age 62 in 1990. Mrs. Parks died at age 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 currently caring for her three young daughters, in November wrote a poem 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.”

Over the past few years, she’s been amazed at how ubiquitous 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.”


Still, if little known, the history of the picture is explored in 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, in interviews with him, said she left her home at the Cleveland Courts housing project specifically for a picture of her 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. 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 attributes the picture to a reporter for Look magazine and two photographers from Look. 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.”