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Rosa Parks

IT WAS Dec. 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a city where segregation and racism danced freely and legally in the streets and blacks were supposed to sit in the back.

Thanks to Parks, who died at home in Detroit on Monday at the age of 92, the back of the bus has never been the same. Now people sit there because they want to or because there are no other seats. This change helped free America from its worst self.

Parks was arrested that day. She could also have been beaten or killed. Instead, events veered toward justice. As Taylor Branch writes in his book ''Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63," Edgar Nixon, a civil rights activist, asked whether Parks would be willing to fight the charges. He had been looking for an opportunity to sue the bus company, and he wanted an upstanding plaintiff who would inspire sympathy and respect.

Parks's arrest became a spark for a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus service, a hard fight waged by Parks, Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr., the grass-roots Women's Political Council, and others. In 1956, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Montgomery's policy was illegal.

Behind the fight for fairness on city buses was a fight to change a world where rampant, brutal injustice was supported by law and where many lawmakers were indifferent. Change had to come from ordinary people, and they had to be strategic, persistent, and willing to face the dangers of speaking up. The policies of passive resistance and nonviolence needed to be publicized. America had to see its worst self in order to change.

Leaders like King and symbols like Park were important. But the great force swelling behind such figures was public action: the people who marched and protested as well as the people who agreed that, yes, the time for change had come. Such sweeping action later brought down apartheid in South Africa and undermined the Soviet system.

This history is also a disillusioning but important reminder that political leaders are not always a source of progress. Their high offices do not always translate to high public aspirations. And they do not always have an ambitious agenda to root out injustice.

Today there are more-complex or subtle examples of injustice to resist, such as government officials who are overwhelmed by the most serious challenges of their jobs, or cuts in Medicaid that make it tougher for vulnerable people to get healthcare.

It is again a time when leadership might come from the many. Parks's great legacy is showing how powerful this leadership can be.

CORRECTION: An editorial Monday misstated the amount of state funding for a grant program to address the impact of trauma on learning. It is $514,000 for 20 school districts.

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