About the Innovator
Rosa Parks did not mean to inspire a social movement when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus. Her action on December 1, 1955, was spontaneous. She knew she had taken a huge risk. As she later said, "When I made that decision, I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me."
Rosa Parks' awareness of social injustice started at an early age. Growing up in Alabama, where she was born in 1913, she hated the disrespectful way that whites often treated black people. Her grandfather, a former slave, instilled a sense of pride and independence in her.
Her life took a radical turn when she married Raymond Parks, a self-educated activist who encouraged her to work as a secretary at the local branch of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). This experience opened her eyes to the widespread discrimination faced by African Americans.
During the summer of 1955, Parks had the opportunity to attend a civil rights training workshop at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. There, she met fiery Septima Clark, a black female activist from South Carolina. Parks later recalled, "I only hope that there is a possible chance that some of Septima's great courage and dignity and wisdom has rubbed off on me."
The simple, courageous act of protest by Rosa Parks, and her subsequent arrest, led to a city-wide bus boycott that lasted 381 days. Her act gave African Americans a new sense of pride and purpose and inspired non-violent protests in other cities. Many consider her singular act of protest to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.
Why She Innovated
Rosa Parks was not the first African American to challenge the segregation laws of a public transportation system. But her flawless character, her quiet strength, and her moral fortitude caused her act to successfully ignite action in others. The African-American community knew that, this time, “they had messed with the wrong one.” Rosa Parks is not an innovator in the traditional sense, nor would she have considered herself to be one. Yet, her simple, spontaneous act embodies the notion of social innovation—that a new idea or way of doing things can have such far-reaching impact, that it renders old ways obsolete and radically alters how people think about themselves, their social interactions, and their place in the larger world. The arrest of Rosa Parks and the resulting bus boycott also led to the meteoric rise of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as the widely recognized leader of this movement. By the time she passed away in 2005, Rosa Parks had become an international symbol of the struggle for human rights and freedom.