Her name was Rosa Parks and when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Alabama, she sparked a civil rights movement that brought first the United States and then the world to attention.
There were already small groups of people working for racial equality all around the country but, after Rosa, there came a movement that rolled across the nation and even touched decolonising movements in Africa.
In New Zealand the US black power movement inspired groups like Nga Tamatoa to protest against Pakeha prejudice and racism.
A little known black preacher, Martin Luther King, was reluctantly persuaded to take up the mantle of leadership of a non-violent resistance that had the black population of Birmingham refusing to ride on segregated buses.
The movement spread to pickets against segregated movies, restaurants, barbershops and other public facilities like parks, drinking fountains and beaches. Organisations like CORE and the NAACP joined with the Southern Christian Leadership to engage in non-violent demonstrations across the land. Other more radical groups like SNICK and BAM joined the struggle in a more revolutionary mode, and it became clear that black Americans and growing numbers of allied white Americans would no longer accept the blatantly racist institutions of the USA. Martin Luther King, however, retained the leadership and gave the movement its spiritual guidance following the message of Jesus Christ and the method of Mahatma Ghandi. The march on Washington and the ‘I have a dream speech’ consolidated his place and touched the conscience of the nation.
In its wake the movement transformed reluctant politicians and presidents into advocates for social justice who passed new civil rights legislation and sent marshals to enforce the desegregation of schools and universities throughout the southern states. ‘Freedom trains’ full of mostly young white and black Americans challenged the explicitly racist barriers of the South and actively organised the registration of black voters. They confronted the Ku Klux Klan and many were killed or, should we say martyred, for their commitment to the just cause of racial equality.
The ripples produced by this beautiful black woman met huge resistance but those forces of injustice striving to maintain the status quo transformed the ripples into mountainous waves, as people rose to the challenge to overcome the obstacles.
Rosa Parks’ courage should not be forgotten for, if it had not been for her, Martin Luther King might not have become the great leader for racial harmony and reconciliation. A movement against racist segregation would surely have happened, but it might have been a far more violent one. Rosa reminds us of the butterfly in chaos theory; she spread her beautiful wings and flew into a forbidden place followed by millions thus changing the face of our world.
Most importantly she began the transformation of the heart of Black America. Negroes who had reluctantly accepted their place as inferiors and second class citizens became proud and courageous Afro-Americans who fought the good fight for justice. They will remain black and beautiful and a proud and courageous people so long as they hold onto that spirit inspired by Rosa Parks.
Rosa died last October aged 92. She was accorded an honour usually reserved for presidents and war heroes She lay in state in the Capital Rotunda in Washington DC – a fitting honour for this hero of non-violent struggle.
Paul Green is a retired sociologist (Massey University 1973-1998). He joined the civil rights movement as a member of CORE in 1953 when he was an undergraduate at the University of Missouri in Columbia. These are events that he lived through and, for him, Rosa Parks was the woman who made the movement take off in America.]