Over the weekend, I watched the very powerful special on Martin Luther King, Jr.
In telling the story of Dr. King's life and his early civil rights work, the special described Rosa Parks
' historic decision on December 1, 1955, to refuse to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This decision was a pivotal spark in the civil rights movement. One of the people recounting the Rosa Parks story was Juanita Abernathy, wife of Rev. Ralph Abernathy
, a prominent activist who worked with Dr. King throughout his life, including partnering with him to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott
. Mrs. Abernathy made two comments that I found particularly relevant in understanding the "spark" that can inspire huge groups of people to take action and change their behavior. The first had to do with authenticity.
"Had we planned it, it wouldn't have worked. It was spontaneous."
People have an instinctual sense of what is real and what is staged, and can't help but be uninspired by contrived situations. On the contrary, authentic, impulsive, passionate action can be incredibly inspiring. At a time when such actions can now be shared, broadcasted, announced, and discussed by millions in real-time, the power of spontaneous authenticity has never been greater. Her second comment -- perhaps a more important one -- had to do with timing.
"The community was worn out."
She described that the community of people who rallied around Rosa Parks' brave act was ready
. December 1, 1955, certainly wasn't the first time someone had refused to give up her seat, so what made that act on that day so special? All the other smaller things that primmed the community to be yearning for something to rally around. Jackson recently argued that a community is grown, not built
. I might argue that it needs to be found
first. For your message to get out, catch on, and have lasting power, you need to start with a great message, then deliver it at the right time to a community that's ready to be inspired.