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Civil Rights Legend Rosa Parks on the Meaning of Life

“We are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom.”

“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately,” Seneca counseled two millennia ago as he contemplated the shortness of life and urged us to live wide rather than long. But the question of how to fill the width of life’s shortness with meaning remains the most perennial inquiry of the human experience.

In 1988, the editors of LIFE Magazine posed this very question before 300 “wise men and women” ranging from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to ordinary farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they released The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — a collection of the responses, illustrated with a selection of beautiful black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the grand question in ways subtle and symbolic.

Among the respondents was the great African American activist Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913–October 24, 2005), celebrated as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement,” whose historic act of courage and resistance in refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger 33 years earlier had become a major catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Rosa Parks in 1955, the year of her arrest, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background
Rosa Parks in 1955, the year of her arrest, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

65-year-old Parks writes:

I was born in the South, fifty years after slavery, when racial segregation was legally enforced. I listened to my grandparents talk of their lives as slave children and was aware of the Ku Klux Klan’s activities in our community after World War I. Racial pride and self-dignity were emphasized in my family and community because of the seeming insecurities and concerted efforts of many whites to make blacks feel and act inferior to them. I was, therefore, determined to achieve the total freedom that our history lessons taught us we were entitled to, no matter what the sacrifice.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s unforgettable assertion that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Parks argues that the wellspring of that dignified freedom is a kind of moral wisdom that sees past our differences and into our shared humanity:

Human beings are set apart from the animals. We have a spiritual self, a physical self and a conscience. Therefore, we can make choices and are responsible for the choices we make. We may choose order and peace, or confusion and chaos. If we choose the former, we may cultivate and share our talents with others. If we choose the latter, we will isolate and segregate others. We can also expand our vision to include the universe and the diversity of its people, or we can remain narrow and shallow and isolate those who are unfamiliar.

To this day I believe we are here on earth to live, grow up and do what we can to make this world a better place for all people to enjoy freedom. Differences of race, nationality or religion should not be used to deny any human being citizenship rights or privileges. Life is to be lived to its fullest so that death is just another chapter. Memories of our lives, our works and our deeds will continue in others.

By her own measure, Parks lived a life of extraordinary and enduring meaning, its legacy woven deeply into the very fabric of modern society.

Dive further into the enormously elevating The Meaning of Life with more responses from Carl Sagan, George Lucas, John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski, then revisit Viktor Frankl on the human search for meaning, Albert Einstein’s pithy answer to a frustrated young woman’s question about why we are alive, Tolstoy on finding meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, and Martin Luther King, Jr. on enveloping our differences in an ethic of love.

Published February 4, 2016




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