Editorial: In praise of our young angels of isolation
By Richard Gaw
On Dec.1, 1955, seamstress Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus after a day spent working at a local department store in Montgomery, Ala., and took her usual seat in the front row of “the colored section.”
When the “white section” seats filled, the bus driver, J. Fred Blake, asked Parks and three others to vacate their seats. The other African-American riders complied with Blake's demands, but Parks refused to yield her seat. She was subsequently arrested and fined $10, and paid an additional $4 in court fees. This was not Parks' first encounter with Blake; years before, she paid her fare on his bus, then exited so that she could re-enter at the rear of the vehicle, as was required of all African-Americans at the time. Blake pulled away before Parks could re-board the bus.
Upon her arrest, Parks contacted E.D. Nixon, a prominent African-American leader, who bailed her out of jail and determined she would be an upstanding and sympathetic plaintiff in a legal challenge of the segregation ordinance. African-American leaders decided to attack the ordinance using other tactics as well. One such group, the Women’s Political Council (WPC), was a group of African-American women working for civil rights, who began circulating flyers calling for a boycott of the bus system on December 5, 1955 the day Parks would be tried in municipal court.
So began the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where for a little more than a year, about 40,000 African-Americans refused to ride city buses in the city. Instead, they walked. They shared rides together. They effectively spun the injustices they faced head-on, without apology. It was the first large-scale demonstration against segregation in the U.S., and launched the activist life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a 26-year-old pastor of Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Eventually, the city met the demands of the protesters, and the Civil Rights movement of the the 1960s became the hallmark of Dr. King's brilliance.
Every year at this time, this newspaper reflects on Dr. King's accomplishments in the area of civil rights, and while there is clear evidence that the tendrils of his work have extended to many leaders in southern Chester County, this year, we choose to make a hard right turn, veering away from the legacy King left behind, to more closely explore the inner pulse of what made the gifts he gave us possible.
In his book “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell defines “outliers” as those “who don't fit into our normal understanding of achievement,” but are the beneficiaries of their surroundings, their collaborations and the time and place and culture of their experiences. Although Dr. King's journey to the mountaintop of justice and civil rights could be traced directly to this argument, we believe that he was an outlier of a different sort, who achieved greatness on the power of his tenacity to galvanize and engage, but also by his genius to create possibility from his beautiful and independent mind.
The thing about outliers is that there are not many of them around, but the truth is that we need more of them. There are, as of this writing, young people at each of the four high schools this newspaper covers – Avon Grove, Kennett, Oxford and Unionville – who are, like Dr. King, defying the traditional definition of success.
They are both coalition builders and loners. They are self-contained but not defined by constraint. They learn and see and walk through their lives differently than their peers. Their direction is both ragged and brilliant, like a generous blanket being sewn in the dark, but filled with colors. The full articulation of their journey is not yet fully known, but their stubborn resilience has. They stand in unity with others, but are too far captive to their own thoughts to allow for getting in line, and as much as it hurts them to live in the distant periphery, they have no choice.
It is simply who they are, and it is their destiny.
“Success is not a random act,” Gladwell wrote. “It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities,” but while the formation of what became Dr. King's legacy may be traced to the opportunities he had, he first had to listen to the sound of his own calling, and accept the consequences of his isolation in order to believe that it would someday bear fruit.
It did, and it saved this nation and changed the world we live in.
Ask any teacher or administrator in these schools to identify who the young outliers are, and they will click off names, easily and almost immediately; in fact, should any be reading this editorial, their minds are now filled with the faces of these young people. We ask that they continue to embrace these angels of isolation, these independent thinkers and these determined outliers, because who knows? Someday, they may end up saving this nation and changing the world we live in.