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Rosa Parks' Moment

Adapted from Stories in Faith: Exploring Our Unitarian Universalist Principles through Wisdom Tales by Gail Forsyth-Vail ( Boston : Skinner House, 2007).

We all think we know the story of Rosa Parks. The standard script tells of a woman who became tired of discrimination and injustice and one day just refused to budge from her bus seat, an individual with courage who sparked the civil rights movement. But December 1, 1955, was not an isolated moment in the life of Rosa Parks. The complete story of how she reached that day is far more interesting than the simple version. Her life and experiences made that moment possible, but so did the passion of the many others who worked to overturn injustice and discrimination.

This story presents Rosa Parks as a young woman with great integrity and humility. She is willing to take her place among those working for justice, doing whatever it takes to advance the cause, including answering phones and stuffing envelopes. She takes time to learn from others who have come before, to be grounded in the history and culture of a grassroots movement. She serves as a mentor to teens, organizing youth conferences and other events. She is a collaborator, participating in trainings and strategy sessions designed to determine the most effective way to move forward. The full picture of Rosa Parks is quite different from the snapshot many hold, in which she simply refuses to move from her seat on the bus on December 1, 1955.

This is a story of leadership with integrity. It invites us to consider how our own presence and the way in which we embody the values and vision we hold most deeply can transform a situation. Read or tell it as though sharing a compelling story from the life of a beloved and familiar person, because that is exactly what you are doing.

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama , an African American woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. She was arrested on the spot and her arrest sparked the beginning of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. That is the way many of us have heard the story. But she did not act alone. She had spent a lifetime acquiring the skills, wisdom and experience she needed at that very moment. She was one person in a grand organization of people working for equality and justice. She was the right person at the right time, but she was not alone.

The daughter of Louise, a teacher, and James, a carpenter, Rosa Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama , in 1913, a time when black people were subject to discriminatory laws and unequal treatment at every turn. Her mother believed strongly that one should take advantage of every opportunity, so she enrolled Rosa in Miss White's School for Girls. There she was taught that she could do anything she wanted to do, even though that seemed impossible for an African American child in the southern United States at that time. When Miss White's School closed, Rosa was 15. She took in sewing and cleaned houses to help support her family, and tried to complete her high school education. Family illnesses made it impossible for her to finish on time, although she did earn her diploma three years later.

When Rosa was 18, she met Raymond Parks and married him a year later. He was a barber who was active in politics and in the cause of justice and equality for African American people. From him, she learned that there were people working hard to get rid of Jim Crow laws. With him, she joined and became active in the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She served as the volunteer secretary for the NAACP Montgomery branch, coming in after work to answer phones, address envelopes, take meeting notes, or do whatever needed doing. She met other activists who mentored her and taught her about the long, proud history of the civil rights movement. In time, she became the youth leader of the branch, working with teens and passing on her own knowledge and wisdom.

Those were extraordinary times. In 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court had declared that the laws requiring separate schools for black and white children were unjust and unconstitutional. The NAACP leadership knew that something dramatic would happen—and soon. African Americans would not wait forever for just treatment. In March of 1955, an African American teenager named Claudette Colvin, a teenager from Rose Parks' NAACP youth group, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man and was arrested. The NAACP leaders thought that maybe the time had come for action to force just treatment, but they knew that Claudette was only 15 years old and had been in some trouble, so they decided not to press the issue. They needed just the right person to refuse to yield her seat, a pillar of the community, one who could withstand intense pressure and not lose her cool.

In the summer of 1955, the NAACP sent Rosa Parks and others to the Highlander Folk School for a ten-day training session in nonviolent protest. There she learned of Mahatma Gandhi's commitment to and use of nonviolence in India . She learned more of the history of the Civil Rights movement. She met the movers and shakers of the movement and sang its powerful songs, including "We Shall Overcome" and "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize." After 12 years of working hard as an NAACP volunteer and leader, she had now acquired the skills and background she would need when the moment came.

And come it did. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, seated in the front row of the "colored" section of a bus, refused to give up that seat when the bus became crowded and there wasn't enough room for all the white people to sit. She refused to move and she was arrested. The NAACP leadership and Rosa herself understood that the time for action had arrived. She was a pillar of the community, a person of wisdom, skill, maturity and character who could weather what lay ahead. Four days later, the Montgomery bus boycott began and the Civil Rights movement came to the attention of people across the United States .

Rosa Parks died in 2005 after a long and full life. She was a prophet in our time, one whose style was not to be an orator denouncing injustice, but rather to work quietly, mostly behind the scenes, preparing for the moment when what was required was that she hold her ground. Her style of prophethood reminds us that learning about issues, acquiring important skills, practicing collaboration and growing our own souls is vital work that allows us to take our place in the long line of people working for justice. She is a hero in the United States , remembered for her courage, dignity and determination. The memory of her life and deeds speaks to us of her wisdom, strategic skill, passion, integrity and membership in a great community of activist souls.

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Last updated on Saturday, October 29, 2011.

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