The On Being Project

You Have No Power Over Me

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on a bus — a simple but courageous act that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement. The moment is celebrated in this beautifully spare poem by Rita Dove.

by Rita Dove

How she sat there,
the time right inside a place
so wrong it was ready.

That trim name with
its dream of a bench
to rest on. Her sensible coat.

Doing nothing was the doing:
the clean flame of her gaze
carved by a camera flash.

How she stood up
when they bent down to retrieve
her purse. That courtesy.

Here’s a description of that moment from Rosa Parks: My Story, by Rosa Parks (with Jim Haskins):

“One evening in early December 1955, I was sitting in the front seat of the colored section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The white people were sitting in the white section. More white people got on, and they filled up all the seats in the white section. When that happened, we black people were supposed to give up our seats to the whites. But I didn’t move. The white driver said, ‘Let me have those front seats.’ I didn’t get up. I was tired of giving in to white people. ‘I’m going to have you arrested,’ the driver said. ‘You may do that,’ I answered.”

I’m always inspired by Parks’s, “You may do that.” Not only is she taking charge by giving the powers that be “permission” to arrest her. She’s also saying, in effect, “Your prison of stone and steel has no power over me. How could it? I’ve just freed myself from the biggest prison of all, the one that came from collaborating with your racist rules.”

Here, I think, is the simple secret of all who have risked punishment by standing up to cruelty and injustice: They’ve realized that no punishment anyone might lay on them could possibly be greater than the punishment they lay on themselves by conspiring in their own diminishment. Every time any one of us refuses to conspire in the abasement of self or others, we’ve taken a step toward the good, the true, the just and the beautiful.

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