Our minds fasten on that single moment on the bus — Mrs. Parks alone in that seat, clutching her purse, staring out a window, waiting to be arrested. That moment tells us something about how change happens, or doesn't happen . . . We so often spend our lives as if in a fog, accepting injustice, rationalizing inequity, tolerating the intolerable. Like the bus driver, but also like the passengers on the bus, we see the way things are — children hungry in a land of plenty, entire neighborhoods ravaged by violence, families hobbled by job loss or illness — and we make excuses for inaction, and we say to ourselves, that's not my responsibility, there's nothing I can do. Rosa Parks tells us there's always something we can do. She tells us that we all have responsibilities, to ourselves and to one another.
She reminds us that this is how change happens — not mainly through the exploits of the famous and the powerful, but through the countless acts of often anonymous courage and kindness and fellow feeling and responsibility that continually, stubbornly, expand our conception of justice — our conception of what is possible.
President Obama spoke these moving and right words at the February 27 unveiling of the beautiful new statue of Mrs. Rosa Parks in the United States Capitol's Statuary Hall — the first Black woman so honored. The ceremony also included eloquent remarks from Congressional leaders and a stirring performance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by the military choir that was a tribute to this bright North Star to freedom. Mrs. Parks, like Harriet Tubman before her, lit our nation's way.
Today, too many would-be movement leaders simply want to be Dr. King or Mrs. Rosa Parks: they want the glory and privilege of leadership without the burdens or sacrifice and sustained hard work. Movements are not built from the top down by powerful leaders but percolate from the bottom up from people who share common grievances. Nor are they the result of individuals acting alone, although the courageous actions of one individual can provide a powerful defining symbolic spark—just as with the image of the dignified and proud Mrs. Parks sitting on that bus and refusing to move.
It is past time for another transforming movement in America today to challenge rampant and morally obscene wealth and income inequality in our nation and the materialism, militarism, poverty, and racism Dr. King warned could destroy us. We have come a very long way towards honoring the Declaration of Independence's affirmation that "all men are created equal with certain inalienable rights" and overcoming some of the effects of the huge birth defects of slavery, Native American genocide, and the exclusion of women and non-propertied White men from equal footing in our new nation. But we must continue to move forward until a level playing field is a reality and resist those who seek to move us backwards into a second post- Reconstruction era through voter suppression, mass incarceration, failing schools, absent jobs, and rampant poverty. This will require committed and prepared marathoners like Mrs. Parks, not sprinters or self-marketers seeking momentary glory in our 10-second attention span media-driven culture. Movement building is a complex and long term struggle that must be pursued with both urgency and persistence and a critical mass of citizens must step up to the plate and stay there until real change happens.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht said: "There are those who struggle for a day and they are good. There are those who struggle for a year and they are better. There are those who struggle all their lives. These are the indispensable ones." Mrs. Rosa Parks was an indispensable one who struggled all of her life for freedom and justice as did countless unknown Black citizens. So let us not just celebrate her example and that of the young preacher leader and people of Montgomery, let's follow their example.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.