‘Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus’: The Art of Wielding Influence

The following is an excerpt from Rosa Parks Beyond the Bus: Life, Lessons, and Leadership by H.H. Leonards. In the book, the author recalls inspiring and instructive memories she has of her friend Rosa Parks, telling her story in a different way.

Mother Parks repeated her lessons, her message, many times, in different words and actions. “It’s simple” she often said, “When you fall down, you get up.”

She also taught frequently, “Whatever you do, think positively and be concerned about other people.”

She also continually taught what the Bible teaches: to look at everything in terms of not succumbing to that which will destroy your physical health and mental health.

Mother Parks led an exemplary life because she wanted nothing to get in the way of her message. She taught by using herself as the example, not just in the classroom, but also when she spoke publicly. It was her message even when accepting an honorary degree or accepting an honor: “When you fall down, you get up.”

“Whatever you do, think positively and be concerned about other people” was her message when she was named one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century by Time magazine, along with Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, Raisa Gorbachev, Albert Schweitzer and Elie Wiesel.

But here is where Rosa Parks’s life gets interesting—and why she defied the odds. Everyone loved her, everyone revered her, but not a lot of people knew that she was a proud, active member of the Black Panther Party. One of her favorite personal moments was having the opportunity to talk at length with Malcolm X. While many others who were members were followed by the FBI and persecuted by the press, Mrs. Parks was not.

Not many people know that she did not believe in what Dr. King believed in, which was non-violence. Although she did say that without Dr. King’s non-violence movement, she went on the record to say that she doubted that the Civil Rights Act would have passed without Dr. King’s guidance and insistence in non-violence.

She’d had guns in her home since she was a toddler. She believed her grandfather sitting at the front door night after night with a rifle in his arm had kept their family alive.She believed in the Bible’s words (Exodus 21:24;  Leviticus 24:19–20) “An eye for an eye….”  But she also held within her heart the compassion that Jesus taught during His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-42).

Mrs. Parks actively campaigned for Black political candidates—not just in Detroit, but across the country. She took part in a variety of groups, mobilizations and protests. She was active in challenging U.S. involvement in Vietnam (how she became a friend of Muhammad Ali) and spoke frequently against police brutality. During the Detroit riots in 1967, her husband’s barbershop was destroyed—not by the rioters, but by the police.

Was she a radical? The answer is in your heart. That’s what she would say if you asked her this question. And know, whatever you think her answer would be, know she would be smiling at you and holding your hand. “Think what you want to think,” she would say. “The important thing is to ask the question. To ask any question you want. For only by asking questions, can you learn.”

So, how did Mrs. Parks come out unscathed by the FBI and so beloved and respected by the press, while being such an activist? Perhaps it’s because she did so quietly, with no fanfare. She wasn’t there to promote herself, just the cause. Perhaps it’s because she understood the power of leading an exemplary life, being authentic and being true to herself.

As a result, people listened to her words and her stories. They listened and remembered because she listened to them. People described Mrs. Parks as being “quiet.” Quite the contrary. Yes, she listened more than she talked. But when she did talk, because she had listened first, she gave great guidance and provided historical perspective. “Live every breath” was her abiding message.

Mrs. Parks took the long view of things, never the short gain. She wrote and spoke about this often, and discussed these things with her close friends, who then, like me, spread out to tell her message.

While I am paraphrasing, this is what she preached: “Make a decision, not because it will be popular, but because it is the right thing to do.”

Filmmaker Spike Lee said, “Do the right thing.” Mrs. Parks always did. And when she fell down, she always got right back up.

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H.H. Leonards is the founder and chair of the O Street Museum Foundation, headquartered in Washington, D.C., and the Mansion on O Street, where Mrs. Rosa Parks called her home-away-from-home for the last decade of her life. Leonards is a wife, mother of three, and friend to celebrities and everyday people alike. The Perdue University alumna established The Mansion in 1980 to provide a unique and eclectic forum where clients learn from one another and foster the development of diversity, the creative process and the human spirit.