Civil rights activist Rosa Parks was an African American woman known for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Rosa Parks Day is actually a legal observance in California on Feb. 4 (her birthday), and in Ohio on Dec. 1 (the date of her arrest). Parks is recognized as the “First Lady of Civil Rights” and as “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
On Dec. 1, 1955, Ms. Parks boarded the bus after a long day at work as a seamstress at a local department store. When the bus began to fill with white passengers, she was ordered to stand up and move to the back of the bus. She refused and was subsequently arrested. In reality she did what she was entitled to do as an American citizen; she stood up for herself and for all who were suffering the indignities of racial discrimination.
Word of her arrest spread quickly and E.D. Nixon, then president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) paid Rosa’s bail and helped launch a bus boycott during which African Americans stopped riding the buses for 381 days. The boycott created financial challenges for the bus company, and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and ordered the city of Montgomery to integrate its bus system.
What strikes me most about Rosa’s story is that her actions were those of a true agent of change. She stood her ground quietly, courageously and unapologetically — as an ordinary, hardworking citizen who had simply had enough of the inequity in our country. On that historic day, she likely had no idea that her actions would set in motion the beginning of the end of segregation in this country. She wasn’t violent or disrespectful — just steadfast in standing up to social injustice. When interviewed after the fact, she responded, “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Young people can learn a great lesson here: violence doesn’t resolve anything. The great Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Under the First Amendment we have the right to “peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Ms. Parks knew her rights and set her boundaries.
Other great individuals who have worked to solve differences peacefully include Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai. Their stories inspire us and give us hope for a better, more peaceful and humanitarian way of solving our challenges. We would do well to continue sharing these stories with our young people so they can examine what it takes to create a world where all are equal; where we can agree to disagree without tearing one another down; where solutions to our most pressing problems can be reached peacefully.
Rosa Parks Day represents yet another teachable moment — an opportunity to share with young people the significance of the struggles Rosa and so many others have endured — of what it means to stand up for democracy. Ms. Parks is a shining example of what it means to truly be the change we wish to see in this world.
For Rosa’s personal account of the events of December 1, 1955, click here.
Lisa Guilfoile is a project manager for the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (303) 299.3690.