I have been thinking a bit about Rosa Parks. I am grateful for all she has done for humanity, my country, my friends and my own life. The contribution of courage and vision has opened a better world for all of us including my family and the life my kids now have. I am thankful for leaders like Rosa.
I am thinking about the conflicting "myths" about Rosa. I am most disturbed at the "simple woman" stories. She was not simple because her job was a stream stress. I don't know why she was a streamstress (maybe it was a way to pay the bills) However, Someone's job does not define their character.
Rosa was brilliant. She was a genius. She was a leader with courage and conviction. She was an activists working for social change. She was a liberal. She was trained in field organizing. She was a fundraiser and she never buried her head in the sand and let "others" solve her problems. She didn't wait for "somebody" (as in somebody will do something about it). She was a great person who got fed up with the jim crow laws and took action. She was not the head of some group or at the top of some civil rights organization but she was a leader and a change maker.
Parks' grass roots activism had prepared her for this moment. She had attended a session the summer before at the Highlander Folk Center, the educational center for workers' rights and racial equality in Tennessee. Several years earlier she had been thrown off a bus by the same bus driver.
There were other black women in Montgomery who were arrested in 1955 for violating the segregated busing policy. But this time, the black community fought back in force. The NAACP had been looking for a test case to challenge segregated busing and Parks agreed to let the group take her case.
Parks lost her job and had trouble finding work in Alabama after her public stance. She and her husband moved to Detroit. For many years she worked as an aide to Congressman John Conyers, and she remained a committed activist. In the 1980s, she worked in the anti-apartheid movement and also opened a career counseling center for black youth in Detroit.
It matters because creating change is hard work. It matters that future generations look to her as a smart, hard working, fearless and steely resolved leader. It matters that we understand leadership comes from lots of places not just within the ranks of some institution. NAACP played a huge role in supporting her but the leadership was hers. They helped defend her but she was the one playing around with strategies to undermine the oppression of her family, friends and community. She was supported by a network of groups, communities, drivers, families and friends. The leadership was hers the success was because of the movement.
The movement she helped build. The movement she knew because of her grassroots work. The network of groups and people that swarmed Montgomery provided everything from legal aid to rides around town. Why does it matter that we look at Rosa the leader. It matters because if you want to inspire a new generation of change makers Rosa's example is much more complex than "get sick and tired" then sit on a bus.
Rosa's story includes awareness, activism, engagement, training and supporting others. She worked to help and support others in many campaigns in 1954 and 1955. Ultimately, she pushed with her own leadership and sacrifice.
Rosa's story is a success in that she inspired others including Dr. King. Her actions catalyzed a network in Montgomery and fueled clarity of purpose out across a grid of civil rights activists and groups. Her struggle created denser ties (providing the rides around town) and better communications grid across the movement (local and nationally). Her action unified resources behind a common story. The civil rights movement emerged leaderful and bossless. Rosa seems to be the self-effacing and quiet leader needed within so many movements today. We need more people to understand Rosa's leadership style and embrace it even if it is more complex than the myth of the simple woman / streamstress.