Although she never earned an MBA or worked for a big corporation, Rosa Parks, the civil rights pioneer who died at age 92 this week, had a surprisingly large impact on American business. Parks made history in 1955 by refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery (Ala.) bus to a white man, triggering a movement that eventually led to the end of legalized racial segregation in the U.S. That allowed America over the next 50 years to begin utilizing the talents of all its human capital -- including the millions of black Americans brought into the social and economic mainstream by Parks's quiet act of defiance.
The consequence of her activism has particular resonance for business, long a champion of meritocracy. Parks pursued an America where people can rise -- and fall -- on the strength of hard work and merit, regardless of how different they are from the majority. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the American dream that has inspired outsiders from the Pilgrims in the 1600s to Jews fleeing Nazi oppression in the 1930s to today's flood of Mexican immigrants. That same dream has made the U.S. the envy of much of the world -- and the scourge of repressive elites that would rather keep power and privilege reserved for the few. And it has fostered our unique business climate where the best and brightest of every creed or color come to succeed.
Today's more-inclusive environment wouldn't have been possible without Parks's challenge to America's whites-only traditions. And we would not have the likes of today's black CEOs at American Express () and Time Warner (), or black presidents at Oracle () and Sears Holdings (). (You see, those confined to the back of the bus would never make it to the boardroom.)
America is certainly not yet the Promised Land for African Americans: Educational levels remain low, median household income is 32% below that of whites, and blacks' share of management and professional jobs remains far beneath their percentage of the population. But the nation has come a long way in the half-century since Ms. Parks took her bold stand by staying seated. To deny that -- or to ignore how much further America has yet to go -- is to forget her powerful legacy.