For most of us, Rosa Parks’ life was one day long.
It began and ended on Dec. 1, 1955, the day she courageously stood up by sitting down. That story is certainly one worth remembering, though in the last six decades we have carved facts away from it until it fits a narrative we prefer, leaving out some essential context. A bit of research into what really happened changes the story dramatically.
And what narrative do we prefer? I call it the Hero Narrative, and it basically comes down to this: Things change on a large scale when someone extraordinary does something dramatic in a moment of crisis. That’s how to address a problem, or so the story goes.
If you don’t agree that this is the dominant narrative of change in our culture, I suggest that you drive to the nearest multiplex theater and see how many of the movies on the marquee have that plot. And not just Jupiter Ascending and American Sniper, but Frozen and Harry Potter, too. The Hero narrative is so pervasive and ubiquitous that it is hard to even see that it is there.
You can find it in history books, too, and that’s where the narrative gets really troubling. We love it so much that we have a tendency (usually unconscious, I believe) to tell even our history in such a way that it fits this story pattern as well.
There is another narrative that is not nearly as popular, but has the added benefit of actually being true. The Movement Narrative says that things change on a large scale when a lot of people move a little bit in the same direction. When we really study Rosa Parks’ story, we find that it fits the Movement Narrative much better than the Hero Narrative.*
There are several problems with the Hero Narrative. The first is that it teaches us that to solve a problem, you need a hero. Most of us don’t see ourselves as heroes, and don’t know too many people with capes and exo-undies, so it’s a logical conclusion that we are not the ones to make a change.
So we wait for someone to come along and fix the problems, at which point we will do our part: clap.
And even if we can find a hero, what is the next step for addressing a problem in this version of how change happens? We need a crisis.
So again, we wait. And if we find a hero and happen to encounter a crisis, then what is step three?
Trick question. There is no step three, because steps one and two almost never happen.
And that’s arguably how it works for many of us on most days. We see the problems, and we… wait. …for a hero, for a crisis, for someone else to fix it.
When, as a child in school, I first learned about Rosa Parks, I was taught that she was a little old African American lady who made a spur-of-the-moment decision not to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus so that a White man could sit down in her seat, because she was tired at the end of a long day, and that single action blew on the sparks of the Civil Rights movement and set them ablaze.
There are several problems with that version of the story: First, she was hardly old. She was 42 on the day of her arrest.
Second, the central crisis of the story is wrong: she was not arrested for refusing to give up her seat so that a White man could sit down in it, but rather so that it could sit empty with two other empty seats and an aisle between them.
On a bus in Montgomery in 1955, Whites and Blacks certainly could not sit next to each other, so if the bus was full and one more White person got on, an entire row of Black people had to go and stand at the back so that one White person could sit on an empty row next to three empty seats. Rosa Parks was arrested for insisting that she be allowed to sit in that seat that she had paid for rather than leaving it empty, with two other empty seats and an aisle between her and a White man who had boarded the bus.
Let that sink in for a moment. The humiliation and degradation in this story is even worse than most of us were taught.
But the most important part may be the part about Rosa Parks being tired. In fact, it was considered important enough that it was chosen as the featured quotation on the back cover of my edition of Rosa Parks’ autobiography, My Story:
“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Rosa Parks did not want anyone to believe that this was a spur-of-the-moment decision made because her body was tired. For Rosa Parks, this was one more day in a lifetime of committed work against racism. A new exhibit of artifacts from Rosa Parks’ life has recently gone on display at the Library of Congress, and it sheds more light on the long history of her participation in the struggle for racial equality. Honestly, though, simply reading her autobiography gives a pretty clear picture.
Why did no one mention when I was learning about Rosa Parks that she had been the Secretary of the Montgomery NAACP for twelve years by the time she was arrested in 1955? She did day-in, day-out, undramatic, incremental work for years, both before and after the day we all remember her for. Why did no one mention that only a few months before she was arrested she had traveled to the Highlander Center in Tennessee, a hub of Civil Rights training, to train in voter registration and nonviolence?
When we add those facts in, suddenly her famous arrest takes on context, and we begin to see the effectiveness of movements, the cumulative effort of many people over time. Yes, people do dramatic things sometimes, and those can be tremendously inspiring, as Rosa Parks’ first arrest was — but that’s where the significance lies: in the inspiration. Those dramatic acts almost never directly address the problem. They inspire others to get involved. And only then do things change, when many people do a little bit each.
So heroes can matter, but only if they inspire the rest of us to show up and get to work. JoAnn Robinson was the head of the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery in 1955, and it was she who called for and began the boycott of the bus company.
The WPC had organized that boycott eighteen months before, and they were waiting for the right time to launch it. Almost no one has heard of JoAnn Robinson, but on the night of Rosa Parks’ arrest, she and two of her students at Alabama State College stayed up from midnight to 7AM running off over 50,000 fliers calling for a one-day boycott on the following Monday.
The WPC had drop points arranged all over town so that people could pick up the fliers in various neighborhoods and distribute them. By the time local African American pastors arrived for a previously scheduled meeting the next morning, the fliers were already all over town, and they were forced to decide whether to get on board with the boycott or not. They got on board with the boycott, and refused to get on board the buses. Without JoAnn Robinson, it is unlikely that many of us would have heard of Rosa Parks.
Claudette Colvin, a Montgomery teenager, had been arrested a few months before Rosa Parks’ arrest, and in very similar circumstances. For various reasons, though, the movement leadership decided that her case didn’t make a good test case. So here are two very similar arrests; one had very little impact while the other had a massive impact.
And what does that show us? That it wasn’t the heroic action that made the biggest difference, it was the movement that formed around it. It was the sustained, daily work of the WPC and the NAACP that made Rosa Parks’ arrest so historically significant. The Montgomery Improvement Association, electing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as its leader, picked up that ball and ran with it, but this work had been going on for years.
This takes nothing away from Rosa Parks’ courage. Rather, it deepens my appreciation for that courage, knowing that it was not a momentary flash of bravery, but a sustained series of vulnerable, self-sacrificing choices over many years.
Rosa Parks understood that it is the movement work that matters, which is why, after being celebrated internationally for her famous arrest, she immediately went right back to that mundane work.
In order to address the need for people who were boycotting the buses to get to work and school, the grocery store, etc., Black taxi drivers in Montgomery decided to charge 10 cents per ride, the same fare as the bus, but they began to be arrested for not charging the full fare.
So the movement set up an elaborate transportation system, buying six station wagons and using many volunteered vehicles and drivers. What dramatic role did Rosa Parks play in that? She was a dispatcher. She answered the phones and connected vehicles with riders. Two months after the famous arrest that brought her international notoriety, she had already gone right back to the day-to-day organizing work that almost no one remembers her for.
And on February 22, 1956, she was arrested again, along with 88 others, for boycotting without “a just cause or legal excuse.” JoAnn Robinson was arrested too. She had been a volunteer driver.
This well-known photograph of Rosa Parks being fingerprinted was not taken on the day of the arrest we all remember, it was of her next arrest.
When we put these facts back into this story, it arguably changes everything. It shows us that it is not heroes who change things, but movements. And if movements (lots of people doing a little bit each, and moving in the same direction) change things, then there is good news for those of us who want to have a positive impact on the world around us.
It turns out that we are not powerless. If it is the small efforts that matter, then we don’t need to be heroic, we just need to show up.
Often, our hero stories are more immobilizing than encouraging. We look at these dramatic actions and think “I could never have done that,” rather than “what can I do?” We feel like our contributions won’t matter, when in fact, small, undramatic contributions are the only way large changes occur.
We often end up asking ourselves the wrong questions. We ask whether we would have had the courage to be arrested that day on the bus in Montgomery, but we don’t ask ourselves if we can make time to get to a meeting, as Rosa Parks did back in 1943 when she got involved with the NAACP. We jump right to the most dramatic point in the story, disregarding the fact that she had made years of choices to work for change, including the choice to go train at the Highlander Center.
Can we make those kinds of choices? To go to a meeting? To learn more and get some training?
As it turns out, that is how you change the world.
So what is tugging on your heart? What inspires you? What drives you crazy? What is one small thing you can do about it?