The recent passing of Shirley Temple at the age of 85 came only a few days after what would’ve been the 101st birthday of Rosa Parks. Both names conjure an immediate, powerful image: the dancing girl, all dimples and ringlets, and the footsore unmovable passenger who started the Montgomery bus boycott, and hence the Civil Rights Movement.

Few readers of this blog have probably seen a Shirley Temple picture, start to finish, as the straightforward piece of entertainment it was intended to be. And yet we all have an idea of who she was. Rather more readers may remember Rosa Parks’s unfolding story, or if not, will be familiar with the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and empathise with the justice of her cause: segregation in the United States today feels utterly unbelievable, and yet it is a few short decades past.

Reading into the lives of these two women bring out a few facts that are interesting enough simply to repeat without comment:

Shirley Temple, when she took the hand of Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson in 1935, became one half of the the first interracial dancing couple on celluloid. (Star Trek fans will know TV’s first interracial kiss came along in the late 1960s.)

Rosa Parks was chosen as the figurehead of the bus boycott, as she was a high school graduate – less common for black women then than now. She was far from the first black person to refuse to sit in the ‘coloured’ seats, and had been an active member of NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) since 1943.

Shirley Temple, on retirement from showbusiness became US ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, and was Chief of Protocol of the United States. An ambitious Republican, she narrowly missed on a place in congress, but was given senior appointments by Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Bush Snr.

Rosa Parks donated most of her income from speaking to the civil rights movement. Her only other financial support, after the death of her husband, was from working as a receptionist and secretary for US Representative John Conyers until her retirement in the 1980s.

Shirley Temple, following her 1972 mastectomy, became one of the first prominent women to discuss breast cancer on TV, radio and in the press.

Rosa Parks was the first woman to lie in state at the US Capitol, the meeting place of the United States Congress.

Shirley Temple’s manager declined the role of Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz.’

What lessons can we take from these women? First, clearly is that every headline masks a more complex story. Oscar Wilde put the words into Lady Bracknell’s mouth: ‘The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.’ The audience laughs: which of us hasn’t thought one thing, until a few new facts show us other possibilities?

The second is that however we define ourselves, or however others define us, life moves on. Few of us are as likely to play such a significant role in our cultural history as these two people, but whatever role we inhabit, we should try to use it for the best without it becoming a straightjacket. Whatever happens today, whether it is the most or least significant day of our lives, tomorrow will still happen, and we still have to make it worthwhile, and good.

And you are smart enough to come up with an editorial of your own, but we shall close on this: Rosa Parks and Shirley Temple became as we know them today through a combination of their own determination and outside ‘grooming’ (for want of a far better word). And both ultimately used their reputation to make life better for others.

Rosa Parks: 4 February 1913 – 24 October 2005
Shirley Temple: 23 April 1928 – 10 February 2014

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