The Legacy and Life-Lessons of Rosa Parks

by Pamela M. Christian, Ph.D.

Every life has a message, often told by defining moments not usually of our own choosing. Somehow though, our lives prepare us for our destiny. Such is the case of Rosa Parks, the former Alabama seamstress credited as the Mother of the American Civil Rights Movement.<

On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks demonstrated an act of civil disobedience by refusing to give up her seat to another passenger. During this era of legalized racial segregation, her presence placed her outside of the law. By not moving, Mrs. Park transitioned from a place within the law to an unlawful act, resulting in her arrest. Her presence in a particular seat at a particular time made a statement.

Similar serendipitous occasions exist for each of us daily in the commonplace routine of our lives. In unsolicited, ordinary experiences, we have opportunities to make a difference. These frequently unseen prospects require instinctive responses birthed from internal commitment to personal values. Our internal values impact our external behavior, and our behavior impacts our environment — even when we underestimate our ability to make a contribution. As demonstrated by Rosa Park’s living legacy, we all possess immeasurable power to impact change. Our response to the ordinary can prompt the extraordinary.

"Her behavior, rooted in her commitment to a greater cause, provided a platform for the change she desired."

That defining moment for the Mother of American Civil Rights also demonstrated the human tendency to suppress, restrain, or otherwise stifle the capacity of others to transform their circumstances, and to add value to their communities or environments. In most cases, this phenomena is inadvertent, but unfortunately, there are instances where injustice is intentional. Rosa Parks’ act of defiance provides tangible evidence of the concept of resilience triumphing over injustice. Her refusal to respond to the authority of other passengers, the bus driver, and police yielded anticipated consequences. Accepting the unpleasant circumstance of imprisonment in resistance to continued disenfranchisement, she enabled the process for change to be enacted. The power of resilience is not always predictable, but generally inevitable. The usual result of diligence is success.

Rarely does success emerge from isolation. The interconnectedness of humanity necessitates assistance and support for achievement. Assisted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and supported by a community previously dependent on public transportation, Rosa Parks gained the attention of the world to give voice to the atrocities of legalized segregation. This accomplishment required the involvement of people who cared.

These noteworthy lessons offer important paradigms for today’s youth. As young people inherent social, political, and economic conditions constructed by previous generations, they must also receive wisdom. The defining moment of Rosa Park’s life demonstrated the worth and responsibility of all people. We learn from her experience that where we are and what we do make a statement; our responses to the ordinary can prompt the extraordinary; the result of diligence is success; and that our accomplishments are possible because of people who care. We can and should make a difference for the betterment of the human condition. What will your defining moments be?

Originally published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

Pamela M. Christian, Ph.D. is the assistant provost at Azusa Pacific University.