‘I had given up my seat before, but this day, I was especially tired.’
When Rosa Park refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on 1 December 1955, in downtown Montgomery, she didn’t know her simple act of defiance would lead to the Montgomery bus boycott, and become one of the defining moments in the American civil rights movement. She did, however, know she was taking a tremendous personal risk. She was the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), and was aware of the recent murders of two civil rights activists, as well as many other examples of murder, gang rape, arson and persecution in the South. However, as she said in a 1956 radio interview, she’d decided,
‘I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen.’
Courage often involves action – the difficult conversation we need to have, deliberately going into a dangerous situation, fighting to defend someone, speaking up when it’s not safe to do so. Yet sometimes, courage can also come from sitting still, from simply being there and not moving, as Rosa Parks had done.
President Obama, during a dedication of a statue of Rosa Parks, said she was ‘a seamstress slight in stature but mighty in courage’ who lived a life ‘of dignity and grace.’ He went on to say that Parks’ story is a reminder that ‘we so often spend our lives as if in a fog, accepting injustice, rationalising inequity’ — like the bus driver, according to Obama, but also like the other passengers:
‘Rosa Parks tells us there’s always something we can do.’
When Rosa Parks refused to move, what remained was simply a middle-aged woman, tired after a long day at work, sitting on a bus seat. As a result of her stance, she was arrested, dragged through the courts, and lost her job. Yet because her initial act was so simple and dignified, it showed up the persecution of her in a stark light, and thus became a powerful symbol.
We all have a tendency to accept things the way they are, simply because they’re familiar to us. Sometimes, the act of sitting still in meditation also requires courage – courage to be present with something we may not want to see. The act of stopping, and simply being with what is, can help us lift the fog of our assumptions and prejudices, to see more clearly what is there. It’s easy to feel contemptuous of the bus driver for calling the police on Rosa Parks (he’d also, a few years previously, driven off after she’d paid her fare, and left her to walk home in the rain). Yet future generations will probably look at us and say, ‘how could they have?’ Courage certainly requires more than sitting still, it may also need action, putting ourselves on the line, taking risks. The act of sitting still is only one aspect of courage, but it is an important one, as it enables us to see our lives more honestly than perhaps we’d like. In the words of Winston Churchill:
‘Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.’
Weekly practice idea
What is something you could be listening out for more in your life? Make some time this week to listen to the quiet voice which may be trying to tell you something. We often have a sense of unease, which can become clearer when we stop to listen to others and also ourselves.