Rosa Parks died several weeks ago, a symbol of civil rights activism with a resume of contributions too long and well-known to recount. But while she may have died the “mother of the civil rights movement,” that label has the potential to obscure the wellspring of power in the woman who took that momentous bus ride.
Because on the day she refused to give up her seat to someone else whose claim was no greater than the color of his skin, Rosa Parks was not yet the thoughtful and gracious civil rights leader she would become. On the day that changed history, she was something more.
She was 42-year old seamstress with aching back and shoulders on her way home from a long day of work.
In fact, she did not even sit in the “whites only” section, as is commonly believed. She sat in a middle section, where people who looked like Rosa were permitted to sit so long as the seats were not needed for passengers with a more approved skin tone. One of those privileged pale people boarded at some point and the driver asked Rosa and the others like her seated in the middle section to move.
Rosa Parks, 42-years old, back aching, weary from work and injustice, simply would not.
The well-intentioned (and even fact-based) desire to credit the courageous icon of a movement with motivations deeper than an aching back can obscure an oft-underestimated power that requires no label, no cause, no activism and no charismatic leader: the will of common people to simply refuse anymore to accommodate injustice.
In April and June of 1989 in Beijing, thousands of student activists began protesting economic instability and political corruption in China by, among other things, congregating in Tiananmen Square. Eventually, having failed to quell the protests with a declaration of martial law, the communist government approved the use of force. On June 4, 1989, soldiers and tanks were sent to take control of the city, resulting in bloodshed and widespread arrests.
It was neither the protesting students nor those government drones who would become the symbols of Tiananmen for the rest of the world, however.
On the second day of forceful crackdowns, a single man, carrying two bags, faced off against the Chinese military. Standing alone, bags in hand, he halted a line of tanks in their tracks for more than half an hour.
While his identity and fate remain unknown to this day, I cannot shake the thought that one normally does not go to oppose a violent governmental crackdown carrying grocery bags. While thousands of activists headed to the Square for a second day of dangerous protests, was this man running errands?
Yet, while those thousands of activists stood by and watched, he alone faced down the line of tanks.
He stands with Rosa Parks in a long line of heroes who require no monikers, no titles, and no motivations beyond justice. Sometimes the most important changes are worked by tired 42-year-old seamstresses and men just trying to get some shopping done. When they’re needed, these ordinary folks with their ordinary lives and jobs, their messy houses, their tired backs and grocery lists, have a way of stepping forward. Ready to risk their lives opening their attics and back rooms to hide their neighbors from persecution. Ready—with a humble cry of “let’s roll“—to rush the terrorists at the front of the plane.
Ready to hold their seats against hateful discrimination.
Ready to face down a line of tanks.