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Having entered 2020, the country pauses today to celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King's birth, life and legacy.  

It's a new decade, and many believe we are living in unique times.

Societal and partisan divide seem to be increasing, and dangerous behaviors targeting people based on ethnicity, gender, race and religion appear to be on the rise.

Things are different now than they were in 1982, when, as a senior and student body president at Eastern Michigan University , I met the late Rosa Parks. In my capacity as a student leader, one of my roles was to welcome dignitaries to campus.

And I had the distinct honor to meet Parks at the university’s annual luncheon — then called Humanitarian Day —  honoring King's life and legacy.

While I wasn't born in 1955, I read accounts regarding her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. This courageous act of defiance helped propel the civil rights movement, her relationship with King and thus, became a cornerstone for igniting change during times when some people didn’t necessarily believe in change.

Why is this important to me?

Because in ’82 and as an African American in a leadership position, I was confronted with overt hatred and bigotry. Students tried to intimidate me by sending hate mail and confronting me in various situations  — enough so, that my fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha) and campus police offered me security to and from classes. 

I declined.

And then I met Parks.

I was clearly in awe, but her humility, demeanor and resounding strength really resonated with me.

And before introducing her, I was understandably nervous, but curious enough to ask her one simple question:

“Why did you do it?”

She looked at me with her gentle face and said in a soft voice with a southern drawl, “Mark, I was tired. Just tired.”

I initially thought she was simply tired from working all day as a seamstress and wanted to rest her weary body with a seat on the bus, but then it hit me: She was tired of the social injustices she had to endure in her lifetime.

She then proceeded to share with me about how her relationship with Dr. King started, how it grew and how they became interconnected during the civil rights movement during those turbulent times in the 1950s and ’60s.

As I think about where we are in 2020, I often think back to 1982. A time where I was challenged, but I met a quiet, yet strong woman, with dignity, humility and class, who shared her struggles yet fought to overcome significant obstacles during racially intolerant times.

But those challenges have slowly led to increased opportunities for those whom historically were not allowed to participate this country’s progress, whether in economic development and/or business opportunities.

Parks demonstrated incredible fortitude and strength by refusing to give up her seat.  It challenged individuals and encouraged businesses to provide seats for those wanting to bring diversity and inclusiveness to the table.

Are we there yet?  No.

But think of where this country would be if Parks didn’t show the courage to stand up by sitting down.  

This new year is not 1982, but if the undercurrent issues are not addressed, we will regress far beyond 1982.

Is that what we want?  I hope not.

Mark S. Lee is president & CEO of The LEE Group, a Plymouth-based strategic consulting firm. You can hear him “In the Conference Room” Sundays from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m., on 910 AM.  You can also hear “Small Talk” podcasts at leegroupinnovation.com.

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