October 29, 2005

Being Great: Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks died this week, and though I'm stretching to make a baseball connection here, I felt like it was important to write this up at the time, so here goes.

For those of you who failed American History, Rosa Parks is known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement after an incident on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. She had taken a seat on the bus home from work, but, as a black woman on a segregated bus, was required to leave her seat a few stops later when enough white passengers boarded that they didn't have enough seats.

Parks refused to leave her seat and was arrested. In response, the black community of Montgomery, led by a young Martin Luther King, Jr., boycotted the bus system. Meanwhile, Parks challenged her conviction to the Supreme Court, who found the segregation laws to be unconstitutional.

When I was a kid, I saw photos of Rosa Parks and thought she looked like a grandmother. I imagined a scene on a bus with some slick, entitled white guy gruffly barking at the kind little old black lady to move out of his seat. The little old lady, angry but dignified, raps him across the knees with her cane. The entire bus, the entire city, the entire world, erupts in spontaneous applause that she taught that young upstart some manners.

As a kid, of course, I didn't appreciate that I was looking at current photos of an American icon still living. In my mind, all great historical characters were from a time long past; of course photos of her were from the relevant period in her life.

Now I realize, though, that the woman standing up for herself on that bus wasn't a picturesque matron with a lifetime of character and little to lose. She was a young, hard-working, probably angry woman. And she didn't lash out like an old mother correcting a child, but as a downtrodden individual sick of being kicked around all the time.

But, most importantly, this young woman wasn't out looking to change the world. She did not go to an ivy league school or use well-placed connections to start a crusade. She was just a regular woman on a bus who was presented with a choice: lie down and let someone walk all over her or stand up, risk everything, and be true to herself. She did not know that this choice would be her opportunity for greatness. She just knew she was tired and had been sitting there first.

You can rarely predict how a person will affect the world. The mightiest of kings can be forgotten to antiquity while a single kind and nameless Samaritan can define an entire race for thousands of years. You cannot force opportunities for greatness to materialize, nor can you deny them when they present themselves. You don't have to be rich or beautiful or powerful or brilliant or motivated. The opportunity for greatness can appear anywhere to anyone.

(Here's where I make the tenuous baseball tie-in) If you read Red Hot Mama, you're likely a baseball fan, and probably one of the things you enjoy about the game is the opportunity to witness greatness. Whether it's the super-slugger with the walk-off grand slam or the kind fella dedicating his time to local underprivileged youth, people like to be near greatness.

But what we forget is that each of us holds the potential for greatness at any place, at any time. It just takes the opportunity to make that choice that changes the world. And like Rosa Parks, we might not even realize that it is our opportunity while it's happening. All we can do is always be true to ourselves.

Comments are closed.