A Single Act of Courage

Courageous individuals can make a difference and change the world. Arguably, Dec. 1, 1955, marks the day that the civil rights movement in the United States began. It began with a single act of courage on a crowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old woman, refused to give up her seat to a white male passenger. It was not a planned act of defiance, but the reaction of an African-American woman who was weary in mind and spirit, tired of carrying the burden of discrimination and racism.

That single act led to the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted until Dec. 20, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on buses was unconstitutional took effect. It was also the context in which the young minister of a Montgomery church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., rose to national prominence and leadership. The rest is history … all because of that single act of courage.

History is punctuated by the acts of individuals (or groups of individuals) such as Rosa Parks. These individuals are rarely politicians, elected, or appointed to leadership. Mahatma Gandhi liberated India. Martin Luther King Jr. became the conscience of the nation and paid with his life. Nelson Mandela brought down apartheid in South Africa. Václav Havel led the Velvet Revolution in the former Czechoslovakia. “Tank Man,” the still-unidentified man who confronted armored vehicles in Tiananmen Square, symbolized the beginning of definitive change in the socioeconomic system of China.

Ralph Long Jr., Lawrence Williams, and Ford Greene were the first black students at Georgia Tech, matriculating at a time when discrimination was the norm and racial violence commonplace. These individuals succeeded where many had failed, sometimes paying a price greater than we could imagine or endure. They succeeded because they had conviction and took risks at a time when their actions transcended the prevailing ethos of the moment — it was both chance and necessity. It is hard to predict the right moment, but the necessity of courageous individuals to capitalize on the opportunities is always there.

Very few among us have, or will ever have, the courage of Rosa Parks. But it is important to remind ourselves that individuals can indeed change the world. On April 5 at 2 p.m. at Harrison Square, we will have the opportunity to do just that by honoring Ms. Parks with the dedication of a new work of art. The location of the sculpture is of particular significance as the plaza is named for Edwin D. Harrison, Georgia Tech’s president from 1957 to 1969. During President Harrison’s tenure, Georgia Tech became the first major university in the Deep South to desegregate without a court order.

We will unveil a public sculpture titled “Continuing the Conversation.” In the piece, artist Martin Dawe sculpted two Rosa Parks, one at age 42 and another at 92 years old. They are seated face to face in perpetual conversation about the civil rights movement and the changes that they triggered with their act of courage. But more importantly, there will be an empty bench for each of us to sit, partake, and learn from that figurative and continuing conversation. I hope that for generations to come that “conversation” will inspire courageous members of the Georgia Tech community to change the world.

-Rafael L. Bras

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