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Rosa Parks: One male WASP's view

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.


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Comments (20)

Jay, nice piece -- but I do... (Below threshold)

Jay, nice piece -- but I don't understand something. Did you grow up in the south, and/or are you nearing 60?

Rosa Parks' poignant act of defiance was committed in December 1955 -- eight months after my birth. By the time I was able to think for myself (say, 1967-1970), the broad impact of her act and the civil right movement was already well underway. I did not think for a moment then, or any time, that some bigoted white people south of the Mason-Dixon line (much less Klansmen, supremacists or neo-nazis) either established a system that kept me at the top of the food chain or spoke for my race. To me, they were what they always have been -- bigoted stupid white trash who needed to keep the black man down by legal means to more easily protect the advantage they were incapable of keeping by merit. I never, ever felt that, up here in the Nawth, white political leaders attempted to inculcate racist beliefs in me that I was expected to cherish.

That's not to say that I was oblivious to the bussing crisis and other race-related crap that went on in Boston -- but I did not feel then that the white animosity to black people then was related principally to "the system" but instead to the reflexive reaction of one group of people (principally the Irish) to another that were different from them. That is not something unique to black people (it happened every time a wave of new ethnics landed in Boston Harbor -- Italians, Irish, etc) or America (look at the Sunnis and Shi'ites, same race, same religion).

My father is a very bigoted man, and yet, as a member of the privileged white class in the 1960's, he founded a law firm and personally recruited the first black man to become a partner in a Boston law firm (who subsequently became one of Massachusetts' first black jurists); and he was the chairman of the political campaign of his close friend and law school room mate, the first black man to be elected Attorney General of Massachusetts and United States Senator. He did not do it because of Rosa Parks or the civil rights act of 1964. He did it because those two black men were men of character and intelligence that he respected and admired. Did he think then that his actions were contrary to the estalbishment's rules? He couldn't have cared less.

I am happy that Rosa Parks stood up for herself, and for all that occured in the wake of her act -- but I think that the movement then was more relevant to the South as a means of flushing the putrid remnants of slavery than it was to the North where bigotry was not confined to the white-black axis but ran through many ethnicities as a result of the mass migrations of ethnics from Europe and Asia.

Whenever you throw a lot of everything into a melting pot, you're bound to make a stew.

Sorry, wavemaker. I'm closi... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Sorry, wavemaker. I'm closing in on 40, and I'm a life-long New Hampshirite. Perhaps I should have made the tense there conditional -- "I would have had my place." And while the South was the prime battlefield, there was still plenty of racism up here. In the 1980's, I had a neighbor in his 70's who would watch game shows, and curse whenever a "darkie" or a "jigaboo" would win something. It was one of my first experiences with racism, and it left a hell of a mark -- I was supposed to respect my elders, but I found myself deeply resenting this guy for his flagrant bigotry.


J -- he was probably a Mick... (Below threshold)

J -- he was probably a Mick, and if the winner had been Eye-TAL-ian, he woulda called him a Guinea (sp?). And I'm betting the fella wasn't one of those who had reaped the riches and rewards of the White System, and figured it was everybody's fault but his own.

Am I close?

Thought I’d drop by and see... (Below threshold)
Old Soldier:

Thought I’d drop by and see what the old (young, really) up-country fella had to say…

Some perspective; I was born in ’48 and lived my first 19 years in a small southern CT coastal town named Groton. There is a naval submarine base in Groton and the schools I attended had a healthy variety of local and naval family children. My closest friends were my neighbors (indigenous New Englanders) but had many “Navy” friends that – you guessed it – disappeared every 2 to 3 years (normal Navy transfers – nothing clandestine).

My schoolmates were white, black, Italian, Hawaiian, Mohegan, Irish, local, rebels, and on and on… I do not ever recall a racial incident or one motivated by race. If a kid in school was ridiculed or picked on it was because of whom they were not what color or ethnicity they were. My school social setting really primed me to be racially neutral. My father on the other hand was somewhat bigoted. He was however equally bigoted in that he would quickly refer to what he perceived was a person’s ethnicity when the circumstance warranted his dissatisfaction – like a discourteous driver (being “cut off” was rare in those days). He would use the terms jigaboo, wap, mick, spic, and the like. I never new him to be bigoted in an interpersonal way; he treated everyone with respect regardless of color or ethnicity. Bottom line – he did not instill any bigotry in my brothers or me.

In 1967 I left home and joined a true melting pot society AKA the U.S. Army where I spent the next 31 years of my life. Racial bigotry in the Army was not tolerated by 1967. The service was fully integrated within the male gender (we still had the Women’s Army Corps then). I never said there were no instances of racial bigotry, I said it wasn’t tolerated. Racially motivated transgressions would fetch Nonjudicial Punishment under the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) (or a Courts Marshal depending upon the severity) in a heart beat. I experienced a racially diverse population and organization. Oh, yes, all of my time in the Army was spent either overseas or south of the Mason-Dixon Line (how ironic for a Yankee?).

My home is now in rural south Alabama (I married one of those irresistible Southern Belles). When I first came to south AL in 1968 (for Army flight training) segregation was still evident. There were still “Negro” bathrooms at service stations and designated areas in theaters. To a certain extend blacks were still discriminated against.

My wife was an Army brat so she did not have any racial bigotry either. Her grandparents were native to this area and although they were not slave owners (not of that generation and too poor) they were certainly of the segregated south. The “N” word was as much a part of their vocabulary and any other word. It was their heritage – their upbringing; right, wrong or indifferent. Our two daughters had a very difficult time around their great grand parents because of the language. My wife’s mother still occasionally uses the “N” word although she is truly not a bigot. In her case I believe it is the Alzheimer’s showing through.

All that background just to make a couple points… Rosa Parks was not an extraordinary individual and what she did was not extraordinary. She was a human being who was tired of being pushed around and decided she had enough. Her action was a spark, a catalyst, a flame that caught the national media attention (a rather fact-based reporting organization with significantly less bias at the time) and motivated political leaders and activists to take on the elephant in the room (racial inequality). The Martin Luther Kings (and like) fanned her flame into the wildfire it needed to be to overcome the racial issue. But as you pointed out, without the predominately white executive legislative and judicial branches championing the cause it would have gone nowhere. Fortunately, enough people came to their senses to pass the laws and acts that finally righted a terrible injustice in our country. Fortunately, too, it was done relatively peacefully rather than as a horrific revolution. (That comment is not meant to demean the lives lost to bigoted behavior.)

The flames had already been... (Below threshold)

The flames had already been lit, but it was still Rosa's courage that fanned that spark into a flame. She may have sat down "because she was tired" but she didn't move with dignity & courage.

i thought it was a nicely written piece.

I was born and raised in At... (Below threshold)

I was born and raised in Atlanta. Worked and went to a University in town. I can remember in the early 70's several Northern transplant friends of my parents assuming that because I was a local Southern native that they could let their guard down and make racist comments principally about the Black population and their political leaders. As a moderate Republican, I can say that I am somewhat bemused and insulted by the assumption of people from other parts of the nation (especially the North East) that if you are from the South East you are, by default, a bigot and racist. My generation is no more nor no less open-minded about race, gender, and religion. Those who want to project their biases on the South, look in the mirror!

Well, I AM pushing 60 and A... (Below threshold)

Well, I AM pushing 60 and AM from the Deep South. I'm old enough to have marched in civil rights marches, taken over my college's admin building in a sit-in and met Stokely Carmichael at a coffee house in Atlanta. That I'm staunchly conservative today is surprising, I guess. I also got to meet Rosa Parks in Montgomery in the 1970s, which was an honor.

I ran into the "all Southerners are bigots" syndrome in the Air Force. I also found out in the AF that bigotry knows no bounds in the U.S. As Randy Newman sang sarcastically in "Good Ole Boys," the North set blacks free so they could be put in cages in Hough in Cleveland, Kansas City, Watts and Detroit.

As someone told me once years ago, Southerners, who lived cheek by jowl with blacks, accepted them as individuals but not as a group, while Northerners accepted them as a group but not as individuals. For many Northerners I knew in the service, race relations was an abstraction. The best working relationships were often between a white guy from the Deep South and a Northern black guy.

I have a good chunk of A... (Below threshold)

I have a good chunk of Aryan blood

Jay, surely you mean Germanic blood which I share. The Aryan race was a fiction concocted by Hitler and Nazi party to argue for their superiority and to try to convince other Germanic derived peoples (i.e. Scandinavians, English) of a common cause.

Unless, of course, you were referring to the pre-historic Aryan culture which resided near the Middle East.

I've always had a bit of... (Below threshold)
Big Worm:

I've always had a bit of an independent streak.

Putting aside, of course, the nonstop shilling for Bush.

I've always had a bit of... (Below threshold)
Big Worm:

I've always had a bit of an independent streak.

Putting aside, of course, the incessant shilling for Bush and the GOP.

To be "white" does not inhe... (Below threshold)

To be "white" does not inherently mean to be racist, neo-nazi, supremacist or anything else BUT today, these terms are being forwarded as synonymous with being "white."

There are entire cultures and many, many cultural references from those cultures from among Northern Europe, and even Central and Mediterranean Europe, that today is assumed to indicate an affiliation with some of those -- any/all -- negative presumptions that I am finding to be the accurate racism among our American society today.

An example: to refer to someone as "folk" just means someone is from your general area of orignation. Because it's been used recently by supremacits in another form, anyone who uses "folk" in their language is immediately denigrated as, ahaha, a white supremacist. Nothing could be farther than the truth because if that's so, then Joan Baez and Gordon Lightfoot are white supremacists. Interesting that the left doesn't go there as to those two, or others like them, in the use of the term, "folk" in reference to what genre they represent as artists.

That's just one example. There is the entire area of Norse mythology -- some of which was used in abstracted form by the nazis to create and proliferate their occult practices and beliefs -- that has now become assumed to indicate certain references but, actually, most the Nordic cultures are steeped in mythology and no one should feel hesitant in exploring and honoring their own "folk" and cultural histories in these contexts out of fear of someone calling them a 'nazi' because they understand what the Runes are and what they represent and why they were even important. Instead, we get voodoo and various symbolism from African and other cultures that are just fine (Mardi Gras comes to mind here, as do the many spells and incantations and beliefs that many in some neighborhoods nationwide practice today) and yet if goes so far as to define themselves as 'white,' they're held to the horrid standard similar to fascists.

Point is, this is nonsense. Hitler is dead, people who ARE nazis today let others know clearly that they are, and the fearful "I see nazi people" mentality has to stop because just because someone has culturally-defined beliefs otherwise does not make them anything but a human being honoring their cultural references.

The nazis had no culture. They created a false mish-mash of pagan, occult beliefs based upon an equally mish-mashed congealing of various cultural references and symbolism from Norse mythology, European cultural clashes and the occult, which was left to their "Messiah's" determination as to what the flavor of the moment was (they actually believed Hitler to be their Messiah, a Messianic heroicly determined divine leader).

I'm a white person, I was raised in a predominantly white majority town but I'd have then (and did) and still today give my bus seat to anyone who was older and more frail than I am or ever was. Rosa Parks was employed by a black-people-only racially motivated group (NAACP) to do just what she did on that day but what she did was to deny a frail, elderly white man a seat on the bus because she and her employer wanted to publicize their event. And they did that by allowing an elderly guy to not sit down in a public place. That he was "white" seems to be secondary to the lack of kindness involved.

I agree and have many times said that I believe someone had to change, modify, certain racially motivated inequalities in certain communities at a certain time in our nation. BUT, Rosa Parks symbolizes an act of unkindness to my view that should not be honored but should have been reprimanded, AS IT TOOK PLACE, THAT INCIDENT.

She could have applied her position of rebellion to some white guy in his teens, twenties, and made a valid statement otherwise. I just see no difference in, say, the NAACP and the KKK. They're both racial groups who intend and plan (as in, connive) theatrical moments to make political points but the points are always racially motivated.

CLARIFYING...When ... (Below threshold)


When I wrote this:

"There are entire cultures and many, many cultural references from those cultures from among Northern Europe, and even Central and Mediterranean Europe, that today is assumed to indicate an affiliation with some of those -- any/all -- negative presumptions that I am finding to be the accurate racism among our American society today."

I MEANT that what I regard as racism/racist is to call others various racist pejoratives when they present cultural references or even HAVE "white" DNA characteristics.

Not everyone from Northern Europe sympathized with the German Socialist Party, with the nazis, nor with White (or any other) Supremacists, nor do.

I'm a "white" person and I truly love and respect my ancestors and their beliefs and cultures. Let's see...Scot, Irish, German, one from Italy, some from the Vikings earlier...must mean I'm running around with a helmet with horns on my head, saluting Ceasar and demanding FREEEEDDDDDOOOMMMMM. At least, to believe what I've read recently.


And, oh, I forgot: my lead... (Below threshold)

And, oh, I forgot: my leading ancestor arrived in North America in 1580 at the employ of the English Monarchy so I guess that makes me part of the "evil cabal" of the part of the family that the other part of the family fought for freedom from.

You know, I grew up in what is today called the "rural South" in a professional community, a very nice place for a child to grow up and be educated. There WAS segregation, and then there was not segregation. Some people cheered when Kennedy was killed, some of the rest of us ran home from school in tears (I did, at least).

The country has lost reason today as to what our near-historical past was and what it was like to live there. Mostly, there were people working hard, bathing daily, building schools, roads, hospitals and businesses and sweeping the streets each morning and going to Rotary meetings, voting, war histories, great public schools, football and basketball games and Sunday churches, new shoes each Fall and after school jobs after a certain age, along with a lot of agriculture and the people I saw picking the citrus every year were nearly all white, poor, migrant workers from somewhere else.

Just saying, the South's history is not what's depicted in "Mississippi Burning" nor what Rosa Parks did that day. There WERE terrible racially-motivated people but there still are, nationwide. I'd take the Southern way of life over what I see today in most cities any day.

Yet another example of the ... (Below threshold)

Yet another example of the ridiculous hyperventilation and sycophantic elevation of Parks. Put aside for a moment the fact that the NAACP was itching for a fight and staged the whole bus event, people before her also refused to give up their seat. Do you know of any of them? Of course not.

If you wish to honor black America, that's great, but look to some real heros: Escaped slave, publisher and abolitionist Frederick Douglas, former slave and inventor George Washington Carver, former slave Harriet Tubman, inventor Elijah McCoy, former slave Booker T. Washington, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, Olympian and Gold Medalist Jesse Owens, US Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas.

Parks's place in U.S. history is minor indeed in comparison to these.

Mark, let's say that Parks'... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Mark, let's say that Parks' protest on the bus was planned, and not spontaneous. To me, that makes what she did even more remarkable: she had time to consider all the possibilites, of just how the authorities at the time might treat her defiance (and they could have been very ugly), and still she did it.

Yeah, those others are all equally praiseworthy. But we're dealing with the here and now. Mrs. Parks has passed away, and this is the time to honor her works.


Jay: Even Rosa Parks could... (Below threshold)

Jay: Even Rosa Parks could not keep the events of that day, along with her motivations, straight.

She first said that she wasn't tired ("at all!") on that day but was instead angry with the particular bus driver of that day's busline, as with same with earlier when he'd asked her and a few others to give their seats up to the elderly. Except Parks changed that to be "the white men" and it seems that catchy phrase caught on and the bus driver doing his job became the Evil Bus Driver.

Next, after the event caught fire in media, Rosa Parks THEN started saying she'd worked all day and was "bone weary" or something close to that and just would not lend that seat to any "white man" despite the fact that the man in question that day was a frail, elderly man. Who was also "white" so I guess that makes it alright to be rude and uncivil to the frail, elderly as long as they are "white men" in the realm of what actually occured on that particular bus, that day.

Again I write that the PROBLEM of racial inequality in the U.S. needed to be contended with but Rosa Parks was hardly a random, weary worker with negroid DNA. She was employed as a secretary with the NAACP.

And she'd had, as had others, problems with the particular bus driver on that particular bus line before. Thus, the scheme was hatched, Parks took her seat with plans to do what she did, the deed was done, the frail, elderly 'white man' was not allowed to sit down and the NAACP got the headlines they were seeking.

BUT, having known someone who was actually there and heard the story from someone not in the NAACP otherwise, what is being commemmorated today is the change itself that Parks helped to publicize, but she as an individual hardly, if anything, was heroic on the day now recorded with lofty details. She was just a rude person denying an elderly person a chance to be seated on a moving bus, and refused to do so when the bus driver she particularly didn't like asked her to do so.

The rest is complete fiction now allowed to become history. I never admired Rosa Parks as a human being for doing what she did, while I did admire humanity for making changes. I just find her behavior on that day of note to not be honorable.

"her works"? What are thos... (Below threshold)

"her works"? What are those, I'm curious.

Suzy, I'm gonna go all Holl... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

Suzy, I'm gonna go all Hollywood on you:

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

I don't care why she did what she did, or whether she planned it ahead or not, or whether she was a part of a "conspiracy" about it or not. Her actions triggered something that was long overdue, and we are all the better for it. And I'm NOT going to nit-pick her on the event of her passing.


Well said Jay. I have to co... (Below threshold)
Wayne Bennett:

Well said Jay. I have to commend you on your deep and moving tribute to Ms. Parks. As an African American I think more people-Black and White- need to do more soul searching and be more aware of their place in this society as a citizen and as a human being. America will be better off because of it.

Sorry for the late reaction... (Below threshold)
Moon Monkey:

Sorry for the late reaction to your piece J,however after reading through the responses above...I had to weigh-in.
First,thanks for extremely well written,poignant and justifiable words on behalf of Mrs Parks.

I am a white male,Northern born and crowding age 70. I am not an activist,one way or the other.
While some of your respondents have taken exception to your characterization,referring to Ms Parks as a "hero",the truth of the matter is that she was.
Because some people can spell and type,they unfortunately assume that their intellect(?)is such that they can pontificate,hold court and proclaim their blah-blah-blah to the world.
I was in Montgomery,AL back in 1955. As a young GI,I witnessed both sides of the black/white experience from a fair and honest perspective. And as a proponent of "fair play",at its strictest,I can say in all honesty that far too many Southerners treated Blacks like dirt. I'm not saying all,or even most did. I don't have evidence to support such a contention. But the facts are irrefutable and I witnessed the Southern attitude first-hand. It wasn't very pleasant,to say the least,and of course my big mouth got me into hot water on more than one occasion for standing up to bigots. Even got a black eye for challenging a guy that was much bigger than me. But I guess that was a small price compared to what many Blacks paid for a piece of dignity.
Planned or unplanned,who knows. What the hell difference does it make? Was she tired,not tired,disrespectful or just fed up? Get a life...these people were "generally" treated poorly (at best) and expected "to-stay-in-their-place". That's just the way it was. And to cross the invisible line of some white person's perceived limits of acceptable behavior was to invite awful consequences. So between laws that restricted all manner of deportment,to individuals exacting their own self-styled standards of conduct from Blacks...these people didn't have much going for them.
Living within the confines of a world structured from bigoted motives,mores and having a very heavy foot on their necks didn't leave much room for anything but a life of quiet desparation.

There is, to be sure, much else to be said about the Black/White Drama,and the pendulum swings both ways. But to even breathe a word of doubt about Rosa Parks' courage and heroism on that day,is to suggest that discrimination never took place.
That having been said,it doesn't necessarily translate to hatred,but that's another issue for another time. Suffice it to say that Rosa Parks was in the right place and time to stand up for her rights...but doing it was almost unthinkable. Lest anyone doubt or make short shrift of my admiration for this lady,"you had to be there". She was a Giant. May she rest in the peace of a million 'thank you's'.






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