Pru Orridge: Inspiring Change and Leading with Purpose

The theme of this year’s Black History Month is ‘Saluting our Sisters.’ In my posts for BHM this month, I intend to do just that, but also to look critically at the stories that have come down to us and reflect on what we can learn about Black history from the way they have been told.


One of the most familiar stories of the US Civil Rights movement is that of Rosa Parks: an old lady, tired after a long day at work, who spontaneously refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, sparking an upswell of support in the form of the Montgomery bus boycott, itself a triumph of non-violent protest. It’s an inspirational story of an individual action making a crucial difference. The difficulty is, this version of Rosa Parks’ story is sanitised and, in key respects, untrue.

Rosa’s action was not spontaneous. The bus boycott had been planned by an organisation for which Rosa volunteered. Rosa was not the first person to refuse to give up her seat in that campaign. That was Claudette Colvin. So why is Claudette’s story not the one people know? Maybe an old lady with tired feet made a better story than a 15-year-old girl who was handled violently and sexually harassed by police officers.

Why are we not taught the story of Hilliard Brooks, who refused to use the segregated entrance to a Montgomery bus and was then savagely beaten by the same bus driver who later called the police on Rosa Parks? Maybe the story of how Hilliard was then shot and killed by a police officer was not the narrative that the media wanted.

What of the tired old lady herself? Rosa said, “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day…. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa’s life had been blighted by racism and racial violence, and she was steeped in resistance. One of her earliest memories involved sitting up at night with her grandfather, shotgun at the ready, listening for the approach of the Ku Klux Klan.

So, neither the event nor its main character fits the popular account. What about the aftermath? Of course, the bus boycott gathered pace and formed a key part of the Civil Rights movement. But what about Rosa? She was shunned by many, including Black people, as a troublemaker and eventually lost her job due to the reactions of colleagues. The organisers of the bus boycott declined to help her, and she eventually moved to Detroit, where she and her husband were able to find work.

Rosa’s true story is not at all the simple story which is often told. It is a story of violence, protest, sacrifice and betrayal. None of that reduces the symbolic significance of Rosa Parks’ actions, which were courageous and effective. However, in focusing on a sanitised version of one person’s story the true history has been lost. The real story is one of well-organised, planned resistance to oppression by many African Americans, itself part of a wider tide of resistance.

So, I am delighted to salute Rosa Parks and her place in Black history, but I also salute Claudette Colvin. I salute the many women and men who struggled in the quest for civil rights, some of whom, like Hilliard Brooks, paid the ultimate price.

A brief introduction about yourself including what you believe is your greatest achievement as well as a female who you look up to who has inspired you personally or one who has shaped history.

I’m Prudencia Orridge. But please call me Pru.

I was born and grew up in Tanzania before moving to Wales to finish my education. After University, I did a number of jobs, including being an interpreter and teaching IT to asylum seekers. Eventually, I found my true home in HMRC. I joined as an AA and gradually moved through different roles. 18 years later, I am now the Grade 7 Customs Fraud Lead in HMRC’s Fraud Investigation Service.

I think my greatest achievement is helping others in their career progression, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds, and raising awareness of race equality issues. I feel hugely privileged to have received an MBE in recognition of that work.

I feel bad for not saying my mother, but the woman who inspires me most is the late Betty Campbell. She was Wales’s first black headteacher and a great community leader here in Cardiff. I’m always inspired by the magnificent statue of Betty that stands outside our Cardiff offices.