Rosa Parks: Sitting Down to Make a Stand
Moving away from social-media-displays-of-affection and pink and red love hearts every which way you look, February is also Black History Month: 28 days devoted to remembering and celebrating the struggles and achievements of black people throughout history, in their fight for equality, justice and freedom.
One incredible lady who played a big role in the American Civil Rights Movement was Rosa Parks, who would have been celebrating her 105th birthday earlier this month on 4th February, if she had not passed away in 2005. For many, the name may sound familiar without actually knowing too much about her, so today, I devote this post to a woman who I am extremely inspired by; a woman whose legacy remains as performing one of the most iconic acts of resistance in black history and setting the world on course for much-needed change.
Ninety years after the American Civil War was over, although African-Americans had left behind unwilling servitude, they still suffered largely as second-class citizens throughout the United States of America, through racial segregation. This meant that due to the colour of their skin they were not allowed in public swimming pools, they were refused service in restaurants, they had to drink from separate water fountains and they were made to ride in the back of public buses, amongst other things. It was actually on a Montgomery bus in Alabama where Rosa Parks changed the course of history for black people forever.
Despite black people making up over 75% of ridership on public buses, for years they had complained that the situation was unfair. They were generally made to sit towards the rear of the bus, but this was changeable depending on the driver who could move the ‘coloured’ section or remove it altogether. If there was no room, black people could be made to leave the bus; they were not allowed to sit across the aisle in the same row as white people and if white people were already on board, they would have to pay their fare by boarding at the front, disembark and then reenter the bus from the rear. It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? Even more so when you think that this was happening only around 70 years ago.
On 1st December 1955, making her way home from her seamstress job in a department store, 42-year-old Rosa (who was already active in the civil rights movement) boarded a Montgomery bus when, while sitting in the ‘coloured’ section she, along with 3 other black passengers, was told to move by the bus driver, to make space for a white male who had just gotten on. In her autobiography she says, “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… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” So, in that moment, she decided to stop giving in and refused to get up – subsequently leading to her arrest and a new direction for black American history.
What Happened Next?
It seemed that Rosa’s one, simple act of defiance in the face of racial injustice was all that the people needed to come together and make a stand. And so, on the day of Rosa’s trial, 5th December 1955, an all-day bus boycott was organised by the black community in Montgomery, Alabama. Thousands of people began walking, taking taxis and carpooling to get to work and the boycott ended up lasting an incredible 361 days, with Martin Luther King Jr. as their leader.
In 1956, after almost a year of challenging the laws allowing racial segregation, groundbreaking history was made when the Supreme Court supported Rosa and the civil rights position and called for an end to racial segregation on municipal buses. This was a big step forwards not just for the black community of America, but for America as a whole, and all because of a tired yet determined Rosa Parks who was unwilling to give up her seat to fulfil the racist bigotry that was rife and rampant at that time.
An Example and an Inspiration
While her arrest and this case made history, Rosa suffered in the aftermath of the incident; being dismissed from her job as a seamstress, receiving death threats and constantly being harassed. However, it is all of this and more for which I find her story so inspiring.
In the moment that the bus driver demanded she stand up and vacate a space in a bus that was rightfully hers, for a white man – even though she was adhering to all the racial segregation laws at the time – Rosa Parks had a choice. Rather than willingly submit and do as she was told, in that moment Rosa chose Truth – even though choosing Truth could potentially mean risking her life and everything in it – and by doing so, Rosa Parks contributed to helping to change our world for the better. It took just that one moment and that one choice to change the whole course of history. I find that so amazing.
In an interview back in 1991, Rosa said,
“Human beings are set apart from the animals. We have a spiritual self, a physical self and a conscience. Therefore, we can make choices and are responsible for the choices we make. We may choose order and peace, or confusion and chaos. If we choose the former, we may cultivate and share our talents with others. If we choose the latter, we will isolate and segregate others. We can also expand our vision to include the universe and the diversity of its people, or we can remain narrow and shallow and isolate those who are unfamiliar.
To this day I believe we are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom. Differences of race, nationality or religion should not be used to deny any human being citizenship rights or privileges. Life is to be lived to its fullest so that death is just another chapter. Memories of our lives, our works and our deeds will continue in others.”
This quote, for me, sums up everything. Each and every day that we are blessed to be alive, we are given choices and each of those choices determines not only our own individual futures, but also the future of humanity and our world. I hope and pray that each and every day we all make a conscious effort to choose love, truth and oneness – and maybe like Rosa Parks, one of our choices too could help change history and make this world a better place for us all.
First written for and published in Defi Media Group’s News on Sunday, Mauritius.