From Overturning State Laws to Overturning Personal Beliefs: Essential Qualities for Successful Change
By Susan Knight | SGP featured columnist
At first glance, it may seem that overturning legislation has little or nothing in common with overturning deeply embedded beliefs in one’s own mind. In actuality, the two endeavours share many similarities. Whether at the societal or individual level, the process of change embodies many of the same characteristics, it’s just the scale and context that differs.
To illustrate the parallels between societal and individual change, let's consider the process of desegregating buses in Montgomery, Alabama back in the 1950s.
On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks* refused to give up her bus seat, leading to her arrest. In response, community organizers planned a one-day bus boycott for Monday, December 5th. Support for the boycott was better than expected. That same evening, more than 5,000 people gathered at Holt Street Baptist Church to listen to Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preach. Following the sermon, a vote was held on whether to continue the boycott. Inspired by King’s message, the assembly was passionate in voting yes.
Passion notwithstanding, the boycott was far from easy. People still had their daily responsibilities to meet and places they had to get to. As they came up with strategies to navigate the situation, they encountered one obstacle after another.
When Black taxi drivers tried to help boycotters by charging them a reduced fare, city officials threatened to prosecute them. When carpools were formed to help boycotters get around, insurance companies cancelled the drivers’ insurance. Drivers were also routinely ticketed at stop signs, either for waiting too long when they stopped, or for not waiting long enough. And then there were the bombings of Black leaders’ homes, quite literally putting lives at risk. Nevertheless, in spite of the inconvenience, financial strain, threats, danger, and violence, the boycott continued.
During the boycott, the constitutionality of segregated buses was challenged in court. When the U.S. District Court ruled in favour of ending segregated public transportation, the city appealed. Victory was finally achieved when the Supreme Court upheld the decision, with the news reaching Montgomery on December 20, 1956. On December 21st, more than a year after that pivotal yes vote at Holt Street Baptist Church, Montgomery’s buses were desegregated and the boycott came to end.
Did the Black citizens of Montgomery grasp the full extent of what they were getting into when they agreed to the bus boycott? Probably not. One can only imagine how the pressure must have intensified as the weeks turned into months. The obstacles may have seemed insurmountable at times. Perhaps there were moments when they doubted themselves and wanted to give up. Yet through their commitment, perseverance, vision, faith, and support of one another, they held on and pushed through, successfully bringing about change that would have lasting impact.
Commitment, perseverance, vision, faith, and support. The very same qualities that brought change to Montgomery are just as essential for behaviour change at the individual level.
The process of change starts with a commitment. Beyond merely desiring change in some vague, ambiguous sort of way, commitment is evidenced by a firm decision to take action and follow through, be it a city-wide boycott or a personal goal.
A few months into the boycott, Montgomery’s bus company stated it would no longer enforce segregation. The city responded by stubbornly digging their heels in, threatening to arrest bus drivers if they didn't continue to uphold the practice. Just as societal change doesn’t happen overnight, neither does personal change, especially when it involves deconstructing thought patterns and uprooting old beliefs. It takes perseverance to stay the course, confronting fears and overcoming obstacles along the way.
Vision and Faith
That yes vote in Holt Street Baptist Church was possible because the people could envision the end of segregated buses. Vision and faith go hand in hand: vision is crafting an image of what could be; faith is believing the vision is attainable. Combined, vision and faith bring a clear destination into focus, towards which efforts can be directed.
Family and friends, leaders and mentors, cheerleaders and hand-holders. They may offer practical guidance, a push, or a pep talk. The need differs from person to person and situation to situation. However, regardless of its form, support plays a critical role in making change a reality. When doubt creeps in and faith falters, support makes people more resilient so they’re able to overcome setbacks and gain the confidence needed to work through challenges.
Societal change vs. individual change. So different, yet so similar when one considers how they both rely on the same essential qualities for success.
*While Rosa Parks’ arrest may have served as the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she wasn’t the first person to be arrested for challenging bus segregation laws. That distinction goes to Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl arrested nine months earlier. Learn about Colvin’s story, and the reason she didn’t receive the same attention and acclaim as Parks, in Unsung Heroes: The People Who Make Icons Memorable. - By
About the Author:
Susan Knight | SGP Featured Writer | Contact the author: @ http://skfreelance.com
Susan is certified health and wellness coach with a focus on personal growth and inner wellness. She was a regular contributor to Social Work Today Magazine and is a featured Health & Wellness Columnist for SGP.