Acts of courage — from many individuals — is what leads to change
Rosa Parks, Minnie Rogers and many others fought for civil rights; you can too.
Bob Delaney, for NBA.com
On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks sat on a Montgomery, Ala. bus and refused to give up her seat to a white man. It would become a moment that defined a movement, forever shaping the course of civil rights history in the United States with that simple gesture of bravery and defiance.
Though she sat alone that day, Rosa Parks truly was never alone. Her strength was anchored in what drives human resiliency. Confronting fear and rising above ignorance is often triggered by an incident such as the one she faced. In this case, the cause was a segregationist system that she felt compelled to challenge.
So Rosa Parks made a stand by sitting. The late civil rights icon John Lewis would say she was getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble.”
“I had given up my seat before, but this day, I was especially tired,” Mrs. Parks later explained. “Tired from my work as a seamstress, and tired from the ache in my heart.”
She based her decision on all she had experienced and all that she knew. She knew, for instance, of the brutal and heartless murder of teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi and the verdict freeing his killers only weeks earlier. She knew right from wrong. And she knew enough was enough.
Through the lens of time, here is what we know: Rosa Parks was a beacon of courage and hope. While history paints a picture of a passive woman refusing to give up her bus seat, the truth is she was a lifelong civil rights activist before becoming the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott. And if we look deeper, we understand she was never alone in her iconic act.
The fact is, there are countless examples like Rosa’s in communities across the country – little-known individuals whose acts of courage confronted and helped change the status quo of racial injustice and inequity. They may not be household names like Rosa Parks. But learning their stories and recognizing their contributions can enrich us as a nation during this critical moment of awakening in race relations and human rights.
Eighteen years before Rosa changed history, for instance, Minnie Rogers was in the midst of creating change in Bradenton, Fla. During my NBA officiating career, I lived in that community and came to hear of her story. It began in 1937 when President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was rolling out with $4.9 billion to build new parks, bridges and schools – an astronomical amount of money in that era.
Mrs. Rogers had a vision for the Manatee County 13th Avenue Community Center. She shared that vision with her friend, legendary educator Mary McLeod Bethune, whose name would one day grace the institution of higher learning she helped to found, Florida’s Bethune-Cookman University.
Together, hoping to further this idea, they met with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But pause for a moment to think about that. In 1937, arranging a meeting with the First Lady was only one formidable hurdle in the process. How did they get to Washington D.C.? Today’s mindset is to hop on a flight and arrive in the nation’s capital in a matter of hours. But back then, such a trip required a train ride – not simply for two women but two “colored women” traveling in separate train cars from white passengers.
You can imagine how many kitchen-table meetings took place prior to that trip – and how many times she must have heard “Are you crazy?” or “You can’t do that.” Yet her unstoppable determination led to that meeting with Mrs. Roosevelt to gain support for her plan and helped propel her vision into a reality.
She eventually opened the 13th Avenue Community Center, serving area children and families each year. While living in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, I would drive by the 13th Avenue Community Center and never knew of Minnie Rogers’ influence.
Like most things in life, until you become involved, you don’t truly understand. I was recruited to become a member of the 13th Avenue Community Center board and it was then that I became educated and aware of its founder, Mrs. Rogers. It drove me to learn more about her leadership. I heard from those who knew her and how she would stop kids from playing with toy guns or pretend to hold guns with their hands – directing them to instead use their hands and minds to make a better community. She was not timid in using her voice and her love to benefit future generations. Leadership is an “influence relationship.” And the leadership that Minnie Rogers displayed served as one step in the civil rights march. That is why Rosa Parks was never alone. Both women were integral parts of a leadership movement that transformed communities and our world for the better.
Today, the 13th Avenue Community Center is now known as the 13th Avenue Dream Center, where thousands of children and families are benefitted every year. New location. New facilities. Same servant leadership mission started by Minnie Rogers decades ago. Learning about our community leaders provides a better understanding of our community roots.
Our history is rich with stories of such leaders, who stepped forward to enhance life for others. Here is another.
The night before Veterans Day in 2013, former NBA great and U.S. Navy veteran David Robinson and I had spent time with a Navy SEAL team. The next morning, we were honored to be guests at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery, with President Obama conducting a wreath-laying ceremony. During the president’s speech, he introduced 106-year-old Richard Overton, who had served in the South Pacific and Iowa Jima and at the time was the oldest living World War II veteran.
I listened to the president’s words and thought of how Mr. Overton fought for his fellow soldiers, his country, for me – and for my family. It struck me that if I was living during that time, he and I would have not used the same restrooms or been able to drink from the same water fountains. Yet he fought for me. At the conclusion of the ceremony, David and I moved the fastest we had since running the NBA floors to meet this great American.
We spoke and thanked him for his service and wanted to capture this moment with a photo. David snapped pictures as I shook Mr. Overton’s hand and thanked him repeatedly for everything he had done for all of us and our country. It was probably too many “thank yous” in Mr. Overton’s mind, because he tightened his grip, pulled me closer and said, with a wink and a smile, “You know, I can still do more.”
I often think of Mr. Overton, a man who at 106 years old, still saw opportunities to make a difference. He passed away six years later yet his leadership legacy lives on, connecting citizens who made an indelible impact on the world like Minnie Rogers and Rosa Parks. The fact is every community has individuals who reinforce the reality that Rosa was never alone when she changed the course of history. She may have been by herself, but so many others stood — or more accurately — sat with her in that pivotal moment.
Their stories need to be told, too. Take the time to learn about everyday folks from your town, city or state who, like Rosa Parks, took action to make our communities a better place, and changed the world in the process. You will be enriched to learn about amazing women and men, many of whom may not be household names but who changed neighborhoods and lives forever.
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Bob Delaney is a retired NBA referee and former Vice President NBA Referee Operations/Director of Officials. He currently serves as a Southeastern Conference (SEC) Special Advisor and as an NBA Cares Ambassador.