Sit down to stand up

I was sad to read about Rosa Parks passing away; I first heard of her in Modern Studies at school (many years ago). For those of you who don’t know, this unassuming lady performed the simple act of refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. It was the 50s in America and bigotry – alas never far away in human society – was actually enshrined in law; as a coloured woman she was supposed to give her seat to a white person. Rosa refused. In so doing she became one of the pebbles which slide down a mountain and bring on a vast avalanche – in this case the bus boycott which would involve a man called Martin Luther King Junior and the Civil Rights movement.

I remember when I first read this I mentioned it to my parents. My dad told me about an event involving my uncle who had gone to visit his family in South Africa in the 70s. Riding a busy bus he saw a coloured lady with her shopping getting on. He immdeaditely stood up and offered her his seat. He was utterly unaware that under the apartheid system she wasn’t allowed in that section of the bus, let alone permitted to take a – gasp – white person’s seat.

My dear uncle was even more confused when the other passengers starting telling him he couldn’t do that. The bus stopped and the driver stomps back and starts yelling at my uncle in that guttural accent. He is unfazed by this – he’s been through two world wars so a stroppy, racist bus driver in South Africa isn’t going to bother him. He stands there and in a loud voice berates these people in no uncertain terms – not for racism, but for their lack of decent manners. He was brought up in a generation where a gentleman would give up his seat to a lady. The fact she was a different colour never entered my uncle’s mind; she was a lady, he was a man and the proper thing was to offer her his seat, bless him.

No political stance, just simple, decent manners and kindness. The driver was told he should be ashamed of his lack of manners and poor upbrining and brow-beaten back to his cab (facing down an irate Scot is never a good idea). Now uncle never started a civil rights movement, but he and Rosa did have something in common (apart from the bus thing) – they both knew what was the right thing to do and they did it in their own way; maybe that’s the way we make the world better. We can’t all be heroes in some grand drama that history will remember but we all get little opportunities to do the right thing throughout our lives.

Some people say a single person can’t make a difference in the large scheme of things, but the big picture of society is made up of many single people, with each of those people’s action influencing the actions of the others. Sometimes doing one little thing you know is right is all it takes. Maybe the little things we do won’t be remembered in international news stories when we die, but that’s not why we should do them; we do them so we know we did them; we do them because, simply, it is the right thing to do. One pebble can start an avalance; one unassuming lady sitting on a bus can change a nation. Don’t ever say one person can’t make a difference. Good night, Rosa, you have earned your rest. And if you bump into my uncle in the afterlife and he offers you his seat, please take it.