America lost a genuine hero this week

In these tumultous times when half of polled America supports President George W. Bush, and the other half castigates him, a continuation of the similar attacks on former president Bill Clinton, with just the teams reversed, it is chastening and heartening to look at history, where decisions on right and wrong have been made and studied away from the fires of partisanship.

Rosa Parks died earlier this week at the age of 92.

Rosa Parks was a normal everyday American who became a great American because she refused injustice.

Parks was the Montgomery, Ala., African-American, who in 1955 refused to stand up and go sit in the back of a public bus in her native city.

Parks was no Martin Luther King, Jr. She was no fiery speaker. She had no designs on a political leadership of “her people.”

She simply got tired of working hard and then not being able to sit where she wanted on a bus she had paid to ride, a bus she had also paid for earlier whenever she filed her income tax return.

Many American youth, black and white, take today’s world for granted. They see integrated sports teams. They see interracial couples. They see former Gen. Colin Powell standing next to President Bush throughout his entire first term.

They see black actors and athletes selling all of America products, not just specialized marketing to other black people. They see Oprah Winfrey on television and they think America was always thus.

But when Rosa Parks refused to stand up and move to the back of that Montgomery bus 50 years ago, America was a far different place.

You could make the argument that Rosa Parks began the civil rights movement. You could make the argument that Rosa Parks’ simple refusal to be a second-class bus passenger forced this country to face its own devilish divisions.

On the personal level, Rosa Parks certainly changed my life. I grew up in a typical southern Ohio working-class home.

My father was a lifetime employee of one company who finally rose to a low-level management position after more than 20 years.

My mother was a stay-at-home mom (much more common then than now). Both of my parents attended church on Sunday and it would have been worth my hide not to be right there sitting with them once a week at 11 a.m.

Like most well-meaning white Americans of their day, my parents talked glibly about equality. But that talk didn’t extend to black people.

My grade school times, begun right about the time Rosa Parks stood up for herself by not standing up, when my neighborhood, was lily white. Eight years later, when I started high school, there were a few black families on our streets, and even more black kids in our school.

I had one good black friend among my high school buddies and after my time in the Armed Forces, where I made even more black friends, I even started dating the occasional black woman.

I eventually married an African-American and we had two beautiful kids. My father was dead by the time I married in 1975, but my mother was opposed to the nuptials, as was my new bride’s father.

They were children of an older America that praised the ethos of separate and unequal. But thanks to Rosa Parks, nobody could stop us, and we were married.

Thirteen years later we got divorced, but I never divorced my daughters, and now I have two grandsons whose veins course with many of the varied strains that fill America.

We joke that we’ve made our own rainbow coalition one child at a time. My mother, too, has come a long way since Rosa Parks refused to stand up.

At 87, she flashes pictures of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren at anyone who even pauses in her area. She long ago dropped the dreaded N-word from her vocabulary and has verbally chastised others using it in her presence.

She and the rest of my family have had their experience broadened as America slowly and painfully extended its promise of a dream life for those willing to work for it to the 12 percent of its population brought to this country against their will for more than 200 years.

Rosa Parks made no speeches. She didn’t call herself a liberal or a conservative. But in her own quiet way, by not standing, and giving in to segregation, and the continuation of entrenched social injustice, Rosa Parks was a catalyst in the march to freedom for an entire nation, because we all gained when blacks were granted a chance at their fair share of the American Dream.

She was a great American even if she herself would have rejected such a label.

Rosa Parks was, and is, an American hero, a person who helped America live up to its own promises.

She will be missed.

Dennis Wilken is a former Port Orchard Independent reporter.

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