What made Rosa Parks stand up for her rights? Continuity/discontinuity and nature/nurture aspects of psychological development

rosa parks

Rosa Parks is called a “civil rights pioneer” [1], an Alabama seamstress who was “sparking the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s” [2, p. 184], and a ‘one hit wonder’ who refused in 1955 to give up her seat just because of being tired from shopping [11]. Activists’ security it is essential to declare their protests as rather casual than strategic [3]. Some quote her with “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” speaks of a strategic intent though [4]. Some argue that it is incorrect that she was the mother of the Civil Rights Movement; others had resisted before her, and it was Martin Luther King and others who organized the protest against bus segregation [5]. So, what makes Rosa Parks a heroine?

Rosa McCauley Parks was born in 1913 in Alabama. After homeschooling, she joined the private Montgomery Industrial School for girls emphasizing self-worth [6]. Rosa married Raymond Parks, who got involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where Rosa later became active as well. At the time of the bus incident, Rosa Parks was already a well-known African-American community leader in Montgomery. She did not plan nor provoke the rebellion in the bus, although she had proven already before her courage for opposing injustice [3]. While Rosa Parks represented the ideal show case for the boycott committee, her nomination as the symbol of resistance helped her to achieve the power that made her even more influential, as when convincing King to support successfully African-American Democrat representatives [5].

In psychology, continuity stands for the belief in development as a sound causal line of changes, while discontinuity assumes a less mechanistic view [7]. Rosa Parks’ bus protest may be seen as a combination of both, continuity of her conviction to stand up for her rights, and discontinuity in the sense of a not entirely explainable discontinuance of avoidance of troubles. The bus protest represented novel behavior for her, which would speak for a less deterministic explanation allowing for unplanned behavior [7]. Rosa’s judgment of self-continuity over time [8] may still be one of continuity considering her ongoing pursuit of courage to support the goal of standing up for her community’s rights.

Gilligan (1982) [9) found that “Women define themselves in terms of relationships and connection while men defined themselves in terms of separation and achievement.” Maybe such a natural female characteristic in combination with the relationship to her activist husband further was favorable for her development towards becoming a civil rights leader. Environmental, parental, scholastic, and spiritual emotional experiences can serve as stimulants of (civil) activist behavior [10]. Rosa’s education for sure has played a significant role in her development to stand up against racism. Being an educated and educating female member of a minority group might positively influence multicultural competence. Multicultural competence is closely related to social justice, and it is also favorable for the development of change promotion [4].


[1] Calmes, J. (2015, June 19). Much More Than 2 Cents About a Woman on the $10 Bill. New York Times. pp. A12-A14.

[2] McElmurry, S. (2009). Elvira Arellano: No Rosa Parks Creation of “Us” Versus “Them” in an Opinion Column. Hispanic Journal Of Behavioral Sciences, 31(2), 182-203.

[3] Schudson, m. (2012). Telling stories about rosa parks. Contexts: Understanding People In Their Social Worlds, 11(3), 22. doi:10.1177/1536504212456177

[4] Arredondo, P., & Perez, P. (2003). Expanding Multicultural Competence through Social Justice Leadership. Counseling Psychologist, 31(3), 282-289.

[5] Barry, S. (2009). Collective Forgetting and the Symbolic Power of Oneness: The Strange Apotheosis of Rosa Parks. Social Psychology Quarterly, (2), 123.

[6] Baggett, T. K. (2016). Rosa Parks. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia,

[7] Overton, W. F., & Reese, H. W. (1981). Conceptual prerequisites for an understanding of stability–change and continuity–discontinuity. International Journal Of Behavioral Development, 4(1), 99-123. doi:10.1177/016502548100400107

[8] Molouki, S., & Bartels, D. M. (2017). Personal change and the continuity of the self. Cognitive Psychology, 931-17. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2016.11.006

[9] Walters, K. A., & Auton-Cuff, F. P. (2009). A story to tell: the identity development of women growing up as third culture kids. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 12(7), 755-772. doi:10.1080/13674670903029153

[10] Horwitz, W. (1996). Developmental origins of environmental ethics: The life experiences of activists. Ethics & Behavior, 6(1), 29-53.

[11] The Greatest Motivators of the Century. (cover story). (1999). Incentive, 173(9), 38.

  • Thank you for your valuable insights into activism and social change. I often read people’s impatience with the slow pace of social change, and the complexities you identified, with so many others, explain why it takes so long to get to that tipping point where changes become society’s norms.

    • Thank you for that comment. I fully agree with you. I don’t believe in quick luck, rather “when the student is ready, the teacher/occasion will appear”. And this may take time.

  • Other than the actual incident on the bus and the consequences of her actions, I knew very little about Rosa Park’s background. Thank you for enlightening me and your many followers.

  • A really powerful story which it is very timely to share. May we all have some of this lady’s spirit, gumption and strength to stand up (or not as the case may be 🙂 for what is right.

    • Thank you very much for your great comment. Yes, it is actually not only about an individual, but about the symbolic story that is relevant for everybody, as you’re correctly pointing out!

  • (Interesting post, but I hope you don’t mind my commenting on a different subject) ?

    Hopefully, the courage exhibited by Rosa Parks (and others) all those years ago resonates with more people today and causes a change in perception of our circumstances as a society. Too many people have become content with accepting what is going on today.

    While, on an individual level, it is good to accept one’s circumstances in life, on a community level it is important to demand compassion and justice and to not be apathetic and complacent about what is going on.

    • Thanks for your valuable comment, which for me is absolutely to the point as the intention was to inspire a general lesson to learn from this story. I fully agree with you!