Thank you, Miss Rosa

Rosa Parks died last week at the age of 92.

This small, slight woman didn't look like your typical hero.

She didn't wear the armor of a warrior. She didn't make the impassioned speeches of a modern-day Joan of Arc. She wasn't a fiery social activist like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She didn't preach changing American culture from the bottom up as Bobby Kennedy was beginning to do when he was murdered.

But make no mistake, by refusing to stand up on a public bus in 1955 Montgomery, Ala., Rosa Parks fired one of the first salvos in the civil-rights revolution that changed the face of America more than anything else has done in the 50-some years I've stumbled around on American ground.

Rosa Parks helped force America to extend its promise to chase the American Dream to the 12 percent of its citizens whose ancestors had been brought here in chains from Africa. Rosa Parks helped force America to learn to love and utilize its better self.

She did her great deed quietly. She simply grew tired of sitting at the back of the bus she took to work. A bus she helped pay for with her taxes. A bus she paid to ride every day. She refused to move for a late-coming white passenger one day, and a social and ethical revolution began.

My family was a pretty typical ethnic (German-Irish-Jewish), Midwestern working-class family. My father toiled for the same local company all of his working life. My mother stayed home and raised the family. They (and we, their offspring) went to church every Sunday. We flew the American flag on the Fourth of July.

All five of my uncles, on both sides of the family, fought in World War II. One of my uncles died during the performance of his military duties, on the island of Iwo Jima. My father, an amateur boxer during the Depression, would have punched anyone in his corner bar who said America wasn't the greatest country in the world.

But even though Cincinnati, even then, was about 25-percent black, neither of my parents had any black friends. There was not one black family living in the 100 blocks or so that made up our neighborhood, and there weren't any black kids at my grade-school either.

Cincinnati was a typical segregated American city in 1955, when Rosa Parks stood for right against might by refusing to stand. By the time I started high school less than 10 years later there were black kids at my school. And within another couple of years the old neighborhood was integrated, too.

In 1975, I married an African American woman, something that would not have been legal only a few decades earlier. My father had been dead eight years by the time of my nuptials. My mother chose not to attend the ceremony.

The father of my bride, also a product of America's Separate and Supposedly (but not) Equal days, also stayed home. But the birth of my two children changed my mother's heart and even melted the ice in my father-in-law's veins. We became a family, and even after the divorce 13 years later, I remained close with members of my ex-wife's family.

My mother, a product of her times, changed the most. She dropped the N-word from her vocabulary, and loudly chastised anyone around her who tried using what she called "inappropriate" language. I laugh nowadays when almost all the whites I know claim to have never used, or heard, that six-letter embarrassment that starts with N.

But I remember how it really was in Cincinnati. And not just at our family table. Things have changed. Things are better. And Rosa Parks, by her simple refusal to be treated as less than human, is one of the reasons that change has taken place.

Rosa Parks was, and is, a great American hero.

She helped force one of the most powerful countries in the world to live up to its promises, to grant the hope of opportunity to a segment of the population that had been internally oppressed for centuries.

Rosa Parks didn't just change the country at large, either. She helped make me and mine better, more open-to-experience people.

She was a hero and she will be missed.

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