December 1, 2003 - Exactly 48 years ago today, a Southern woman took a seemingly small action that started one of the most important movements of the century. To stand up for her rights, she chose to just sit down.
History books and stories have reported countless times that Alabama seamstress Rosa Parks was tired and weary from a long day at work and refused to give her seat to a white man that day in Montgomery for that reason.
This is a discredit and underestimation of the woman whose arrest kicked off the civil rights movement of the 1950s. She took an action that would result in the desegregation of transportation and before long, so much more.
Yes, 43-year-old Parks was tired and had worked a long day, but this was not the reason she was so weary. She was weary from living a life where she had to follow different rules because of the color of her skin. She was tired of obliging in cases where she felt she had just as much right as the white person. She was sick of feeling humiliated, like she was less of a person because she did not look like the people who were making the laws.
Parks did not join up with the civil rights movement as a result of her arrest; she was a part of it long before, serving for some time as secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
That day in December, the NAACP mission was not something abstract but deeply personal to Parks. The seat was hers and she had just as much right to it as the next person. When the bus driver threatened her, telling her to move or he would have her arrested, Parks replied, "You may go on and do so."
Parks was not the first person to be arrested for not giving up her seat, but her action came at precisely the right place in time and locale, when ideas were already simmering for how to make segregation a thing of the past. Fortunately, Parks was also an ideal candidate for the public attention. A married woman with a stable job, Parks was everyone’s next-door neighbor, their best friend, their aunt, their fellow parishioner at church.
The months to follow were pivotal in the start of the civil rights movement- beginning with her arrest and trial and the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and leading up to the Supreme Court's November 1956 ruling of segregation on transportation as unconstitutional.
The civil rights movement has been applauded as one of the most successful nonviolent movements in history. People believed in their rights so much so that they were willing to risk their livelihood and their very lives for the cause of equality and justice.
The work is of undoing racism is not over. To this day, organizations like the NAACP are working to fight inequity and allow equal opportunity for all, no matter what color their skin may be. The Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, founded in 1987 by Rosa Parks and Elaine Eason Steele in honor of Raymond Parks, works with young people between the ages of 11 and 17. Their main program Pathways to Freedom takes youth through historic areas of the United States to expose them to their history and encourage them to be responsible citizens to ensure a bright future.
Parks celebrated her 90th birthday in February 2003 and is a living icon of the difference one person can make. In a June 1995 interview, Parks acknowledged the work still left to be done: “We still have a long way to go, we still have many obstacles and many challenges to face. It's far from perfect, and it may never be, but I think as long as we do the best we can to improve conditions, then people will be benefited.”
Lisa M. O'Neill is a freelance writer based in New Orleans specializing in social justice issues.
Lisa's website "pieces of peace" (www.lisamoneill.com) focuses on people at work for peace and justice in their own communities and in the world. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org