Rosa Parks’ time of honor has passed, and her body has been removed from the Capitol Rotunda and is heading for her final resting place. And I find myself looking back on her act of defiance, and wondering just what that black woman and her actions mean to this white man.
The answer is, one hell of a lot.
Rosa Parks didn’t challenge a race, or a class, or a people. She challenged a system. A system that not only oppressed her based on her sex and race, but oppressed everyone, locking them into their rigid, assigned roles.
As I said, I’m a white man. Under the system she fought, I had my role. I had my likes and dislikes all worked out for me. There were certain things I could and could not do, beliefs I was expected to cherish and those I was obligated to oppose. And chief among them was my duty to my race, my sex, and the system that kept it at the top of the food chain.
I’ve always had a bit of an independent streak. I get very put-out when others to things in my name, on my behalf, for my benefit without my knowledge or consent. It’s one of the reasons I have such loathing for the Klan, the white supremacists, the Neo-Nazis. I have a good chunk of Aryan blood in my background (mongrelized with other Western European lines), and I take it very, very personally when these groups claim to be acting in my name. I loathe them and and all they stand for, and their use of my identity as a rallying cry is a grotesque insult.
Rosa Parks was one of the triggers in the movement that eventually brought that system low. Her courageous stand triggered a movement that not only freed blacks, but whites as well from the soul-shredding burden of segregation and oppression. She helped us all realize that when you dehumanize others, you dehumanize yourself as well.
One point that is often overlooked is that while a lot of black leaders were involved in the Civil Rights movement, the people who actually made things happen were the people in the federal government. It was the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidents that made sure that the moral imperative of the civil rights movement came to pass.
And let it never be forgotten that the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Presidents of that time were almost exclusively white men. White men who saw that the system that guaranteed them privilege and superiority and power was grotesquely unfair, ultimately destructive to all participants, and moved heaven and earth to undermine and shatter their own lock on the seats of power.
Because of that decision, I find myself freer than any other people in history. I can look at stereotypes and see them for what they are: occasionally rooted in fact, but largely shortcuts for lazy thinkers and grotesque exaggerations. I can think and judge for myself, and not worry about whether or not I’m “betraying my race” or “violating the laws of God and Man.” I find I can freely admire and loathe individuals (and, on occasion, lust after certain individuals of the female persuasion) purely on the basis of who they are, not on their race, sex, national origin, or any other arbitrary distinction. I am free to, as a wise man put it, judge people not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.
Rosa Parks is not a black icon. She was not the liberator of a race. She was an American legend, and she helped free an entire nation of a toxic system. And as one who stood to inherit some small part of the power structure she helped topple, as one who may have led a life of privilege if it hadn’t been for her, I will be eternally grateful.