A new book untitled “The Rebellious Life of Rosa Parks” by Jeannne Theroharis destroys the myth that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in favor of a white man because she was a humble seamstress whose feet were just too tired to move. According to Theroharis, “Rosa’s family sought to teach her a controlled anger, a survival strategy that balanced compliance with militancy”. Later, Rosa married a civil rights activist who impressed her because, she said, “he refused to be intimidated by white people.”
Nearly two decades passed before Rosa was able to put all that she learned and believed in into an act of controlled defiance that would reverberate through-out the civil rights movement and the world.
All of the above became especially relevant to me, not only because we are on the verge of the 100th anniversary of Ms. Park’s birth, but because of an incident told to me by a woman whom I taught with nearly thirty years ago. When I met this teacher she was quite young. In fact, she came to work at the school where I taught after she found suitable child-care for her two small boys.
It soon became apparent that this young woman was exceptional. A strong sense of justice permeated her conversation and her actions. Although she was not tenured yet, the faculty elected her union coordinator for our school. Over the years, her special commitment and her ability to articulate for justice for all was recognized by the entire school district and by the parents whose children she taught and/or worked with became legendary.
As a result, the following incident that she related to me many years later over breakfast with a group of retired co-worker did not surprise me. While this now retired teacher was sitting on a plane waiting to take off from the west to the east coast, she heard a cabin attendant rudely reprimanded a young woman for sitting in the wrong seat. The young woman did not realize that she was in the wrong seat and immediately moved to the correct seat. My former colleague could not let that rest. She felt that the mistake was an accident and cabin attendant did not act in a professional manner. So, she called the attendant over and told her so. The attendant became indignant and accused her of “trying to tell her how to do her job.” By then, others also stated that the attendant had been unnecessarily harsh to the young woman. The attendant left in a huff. She returned a few minutes later with two security guards.
The guards then asked the retired teacher to leave the plane stating that the attendant reported that she had threatened her. My co-worker replied that she was going to the east coast. She was not leaving the plane. She also stated that if she had threatened the attendant, she would know it. She then stated that she would contact the airline to report the whole incident when she arrived at her destination. Needless to say, that retired teacher reached her destination on time. Yes, she did report the incident to the airline. Apparently, this kind of incident involving that particular attendant was not the first. Not only did my former co-worker feel justified, she got a free ticket to any place in the US!
Rosa Parks was ready for the incident on her bus; my colleague was ready for the incident on her plane. How often does one seize the opportunity to do what one believe is right and just?