You, Sir, Are No Rosa Parks

  • Share
  • Read Later

Rosa Parks in 1996

According to Reuters, on January 20 in Washington, a special guest at the Florida state inaugural ball was introduced by country singer Larry Gatlin. He said, "In France it was Joan of Arc; in the Crimea it was Florence Nightingale; in the deep south there was Rosa Parks; in India there was Mother Teresa, and in Florida there was Katherine Harris."

I leave it to my Indian, Crimean and French colleagues to determine how the Florida secretary of state is or is not similar to Teresa, Florence or St. Joan. As for Rosa Parks, Katherine Harris can get in line. Because people these days can't stop comparing themselves to Parks. To wit:

The mayor of Friendship Heights, Md., has proposed an outdoor smoking ban because, according to the Washington Post, "citizens with asthma or other illnesses 'cannot have full access' to areas where smokers are doing their evil deed. The mayor compares this horrific possibility to Rosa Parks being sent to the back of the bus."

A California dairy farmer protesting the government's milk pricing system poured milk down a drain in front of TV cameras, claiming that he had to take a stand, "just like Rosa Parks had to take a stand."

A street performer in St. Augustine, Fla., is challenging a city ordinance that bans him from doing his act on the town's historic St. George Street. The performer's lawyer told the Florida Times-Union, "Telling these people they can exercise their First Amendment rights somewhere other than on St. George is like telling Rosa Parks that she has to sit in the back of the bus." (Which is, coincidentally, also the argument of another Florida lawyer, this one representing adult dancers contesting Tampa's ordinance outlawing lap dancing.)

Call me picky, but breathing second-hand smoke, unfair dairy pricing, and not being able to mime (or lap dance), though they are all tragic, tragic injustices, are not quite as bad as the systematic segregation of public transportation based on skin color. And while fighting for your right to lap dance and mime and breathe just the regular pollution and not the added fumes of cigarette smokers is a very fine, very American idea, it is not quite as brave as being a middle-aged black woman in Alabama in 1955 telling a white man she's not giving him her seat despite the fact that the law requires her to do so. And, oh, by the way, in the process, she gets arrested, and then sparks the Montgomery bus boycott, which is the seed of the civil rights movement as we know it. The bus boycotters not only introduced a 26-year-old pastor by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr., into national public life, they, after many months of carpools, walking, and court fights against bus segregation, got the separate-but-equal doctrine declared illegal once and for all.

I would also like to mention rocker, marksman and conservative activist Ted Nugent, who, in his autobiography "God, Guns and Rock 'n' Roll" refers to himself as "Rosa Parks with a loud guitar." That's so inaccurate; everyone knows he's more like Mary Matalin with a fancy deer rifle.

It's not just people on the right like Katherine Harris and Ted Nugent who seem especially silly being likened to Parks. I first cringed at this "Rosa Parks c'est moi" phenomenon last October at Ralph Nader's lefty rally at Madison Square Garden. Ever sit in a coliseum full of people who think they're heroes? I was surrounded by thousands of well-meaning, well-fed white kids who loved it when filmmaker Michael Moore told them they should, like Rosa Parks, stand up to power, by which I think he meant vote for Nader so he could qualify for federal matching funds. When Nader himself mentioned abolitionists in Mississippi in 1836 and asked the crowd to "think how lonely it must have been," he was answered, according to my notes, with a "huge, weird cheer." I think I'm a fine enough person — why, the very next morning I was having people over for waffles. But I hope I'm not being falsely modest by pointing out that I'm no Harriet Tubman. And I'm certainly no Rosa Parks. As far as I'm concerned, about the only person in recent memory who has an unimpeachable right to compare himself to Parks is that Chinese student who stared down those tanks at Tiananmen Square.

I was reminded of those Naderites the other day when I was watching a "Sports Night" rerun on Comedy Central. Dan, a television sportscaster played by Josh Charles, has been ordered by the network to make an on-air apology to viewers because he said in a magazine interview that he supports the legalization of marijuana. He stands by his opinion and balks at apologizing. His boss Isaac (Robert Guillaume) agrees, but tells him to do it anyway "because it's television and this is how it's done." Dan replies, "Yeah, well sitting in the back of the bus was how it was done until a 42-year-old lady moved up front." A few minutes later Isaac looks Dan in the eye and tells him, "Because I love you I can say this. No rich young white guy has ever gotten anywhere with me comparing himself to Rosa Parks." Finally, the voice of reason, which of course was heard on a canceled network TV series that a cable channel airs opposite "ER."

In defense of Ted Nugent, the street performer, the mayor, the dairy farmer, the lap dancers, the Naderites and a fictional sportscaster, I will point out that Katherine Harris is the only person on my list of people lamely compared to a civil rights icon who is actually being sued for "massive voter disenfranchisement of people of color during the presidential election" by the NAACP.