Recently, a life-size statue of Rosa Parks was added to the US Capitol National Statuary Hall alongside other American icons. The first black woman being so honored, Rosa Parks did something quietly that ignited the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. It was a deliberate act of civil disobedience that changed America. What is civil disobedience? You may be surprised to learn that it’s the most powerful force that can topple a discriminatory regime, an unjust government, or even an empire.
On a cold day in December 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger in a city bus as required by the segregation laws throughout the South. The bus driver threatened to take her to jail. Parks calmly replied, “You may.” So she was jailed for disobeying the laws legalizing racial discrimination. When the news broke out, it sparked an organized boycott of the city bus by black people. It also drew national attention and the support of other organizations. One year later, yielding to the continued boycott and other pressures, the public transportation authority of Montgomery dismantled racial segregation, where blacks no longer had to sit in the black section of the bus and surrender their seats to whites.
Another well-known case of civil disobedience occurred in March 1930 in India, where Mahatma Gandhi led his people marching to the sea to make salt in protest of the British monopoly on this important commodity. This marks the beginning of the end of British colonial rule in India, and eventually, the British Empire that spanned the globe.
What makes civil disobedience so powerful? It appeals to people’s conscience that a given law or tradition is unfair and unjust, and therefore must be disobeyed. In addition, its non-violent nature wins more friends than enemies. If carried out collectively, civil disobedience has shown to be very effective. When every man, woman and child disobey an unjust law like Rosa Parks did, what can the authorities do? They cannot persecute all of them. They don’t even have enough jail or police force to handle all the lawbreakers. So the authorities must yield eventually.
No matter where we live in this world, all the laws are made by a small number of powerful people who do not live the same way we do and seldom understand our everyday problems. When it comes down to money or important resources, the laws are usually made favoring the lawmakers and their friends. As always, the laws are proclaimed to be serving the public. In fact, they are made to preserve the status quo.
Why do people accept the unjust laws even though they are the victims? They don’t really accept but they tolerate them for various reasons. The most innocent and common reason is that the laws must be obeyed as we have been taught since birth. Another reason is that we may not be aware we are the victims, thus perpetuating the injustice to our children and grandchildren. A third reason is the thinking that we are powerless to change the laws so we’d better obey them. Well, Rosa Parks did not behave the same way. She intentionally disobeyed a targeted piece of the laws requiring surrendering her seat to a white person. However, her small action led to eventual toppling of the entire Southern regime of racial discrimination due to the ripples she had generated. As we have seen, one person may be powerless, but the ripples made are incredibly powerful when other people start to join in to form a tidal wave.
Because the world is not perfect, there always exist plenty of laws and traditions that don’t serve justice to the common people, especially those related to equal opportunity, fair competition, consumer protection, environmental protection, and protection of children, women, the elderly and the weak. Who understand the plights of the victims? Who are willing to speak for them? Are we so powerless that we must tolerate everything? How can we change society for the better? Rosa Parks has taught us a great lesson.