There was the individual stand for freedom taken by Rosa Parks - defying Jim Crow laws of segregation by refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. And there was the nascent civil rights movement of the 1950s, just waiting for someone of her courage and morality to come along. Together, they had the power to overthrow statutory racial oppression and change a nation.
The former seamstress, whose 1955 arrest on a Montgomery, Ala. bus sparked an era of boycotts, marches, and civil disobedience in the name of racial equality, said in her autobiography that she didn't think much about the consequences of her action at the time.
"If I had let myself think too deeply about what might happen to me, I might have gotten off the bus," wrote Parks, who died this week. Rather, an innate rebellion against being made a racial victim reinforced her dignified defiance of the law: "I was tired of giving in."
Around the world, her story has inspired others fighting oppression. When a single Chinese student faced off with a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Nelson Mandela called it "a Rosa Parks moment."
Yet, unlike Tiananmen, in which a budding democracy movement was crushed, Rosa Parks was able to become "the mother of the civil rights movement" because she received strength and support from that movement - and because key US institutions (particularly the Supreme Court) were beginning to admit that her cause was a right cause.
At the time of Parks's arrest, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was specifically looking for a person of moral standing whose case could be used as a battering ram against Jim Crow. They found that in Parks, who herself was secretary of the local NAACP chapter, who was married to an NAACP activist, and who, the previous summer, had received training at a civil- rights workshop.
Her case proved to be the right one, and a week before a 381-day boycott nearly bankrupted Montgomery's bus system, the Supreme Court declared Alabama's bus segregation law unconstitutional.
But this wasn't the High Court's first brush with Jim Crow. The year before, in the landmark ruling of Brown v. The Board of Education, it overturned school segregation. Another key institution, the military, had already banned racial segregation. Parks worked for a short time at an air force base. There, she rode an integrated bus trolley. "You might just say [that] opened my eyes up," Parks told her biographer, Douglas Brinkley.
As months passed, what was perhaps a personal choice turned into public defiance of a more conscious and courageous nature. After her arrest, Parks was fired from her job, but she took up work as a dispatcher of private vehicles during the bus boycott, and travelled and spoke on behalf of civil rights - this despite frequent death threats.
The world needs individuals to heed the inner voice of dignity and freedom when it calls, and to act on it and carry it forward as Parks did. But they must have the support of likeminded people around them. The Parks story shows how vital that is.