Touching greatness

Friday, November 4, 2005

A good woman was honored this week, and I want to add to it. I watched the funeral of Rosa Parks all afternoon Wednesday, and it was so beautiful, so moving and rich with feeling, that at points it filled my eyes with tears.

What preaching. It was old school, with the Holy Spirit. I wish I could have been there and touched her small coffin.

The Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was ringing: "It was the Christ in her that was sitting in that seat."

Bill Clinton's remarks were brief, true and tender. What was said of Teddy Roosevelt is usually true of Mr. Clinton: He thinks himself the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. But yesterday he did not think so. He just talked about that crucial moment when a young black woman refused to give her seat on a bus to a white man. And what that moment meant.

It was a wonderful moment in my life a dozen years ago when I met Rosa Parks, a small, old woman. I got to tell her of my admiration. She was patient, nodded. She'd heard it all before but understood people want to say it. She was gracious and nice.

Once, 30 years ago next spring, I was introduced to an old man who kindly rose from his seat in the office in which he was visiting a friend. I put out my hand and we shook and smiled and the friend said, "Peggy, this is Jesse Owens." I was so taken aback to walk into a room and suddenly meet greatness that I said, "Oh my gosh!" and we started to laugh.

He was used to it. He knew who he was. He ran in front of Hitler and showed him what's what. She wouldn't move to the colored section and showed 'em what's what. They were great Americans who helped their country. I am lucky to have touched their hands.

Peggy Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal.

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