As 2005 comes to an end, critics are trotting out their various “Year in Review” lists. I’m not sure if 10 or 20 years from now we’ll remember anything on these lists. The few items of real importance — Hurricane Katrina or the South Asian earthquake, for instance — we’d sooner forget, along with the litany of 2005’s other disasters, natural and man-made. The rest of 2005’s “memorable moments” just clutter our brain cells. Yes, it is true that our beloved celebrities rose to unprecedented pinnacles of insanity and inanity in 2005 — with on-air crack-ups and fizzled marriages and a revolving door of indictments and acquittals, continually televised and scrutinized — but that kind of news lasts as long as the cheap tabloid paper it’s printed on. A few decades from now, almost all the personalities of 2005 will have become obscure, the stuff of unfortunate Trivial Pursuit stumpers.

Instead of dwelling on celebrated disasters or disastrous celebrities, then, I’d like to end the year paying homage to two individuals who actually lived quiet and ordinary lives, mostly away from the cameras, and yet left legacies that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will likely remember. One is Rosa Parks, and the other is Fred Korematsu. Both died in 2005.

The better-known of the duo, of course, is Rosa Parks, but even her life has become clouded by myth-making over the years. Most of us remember her as the fearless woman who one day refused to get up from her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and thus sent Jim Crow crashing to the ground. Rosa Parks did all this, yes, but we sometimes forget that she was not just a seamstress but also a longtime activist, who served as an officer of her local NAACP chapter and trained at the Highlander Folk School, a center in Tennessee known for its left-wing politics and outspoken advocacy on behalf of workers’ rights and racial equality. At Highlander the instructors taught, “You are a child of God; You can make a difference” — and it was these words, Parks later told a friend, that inspired her to defy a white bus driver’s order to give up her seat.

What is so moving about Rosa Parks’ life is the dignity and humility that she brought to it. She saw herself as one woman in a long line of activists struggling to change an unjust society. She had no ambition for leadership when she became secretary of the Montgomery NAACP in the 1940s: “I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no,” Parks later said. She had not planned to stage a bus protest on December 1, 1955, she insisted, but when the bus driver barked at her Parks realized she was just too “tired of giving in.” She was not the first African American to be arrested for refusing to surrender a seat, but Parks brought a character of such irreproachable integrity to the cause that the community easily rallied around her; she was regarded, said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery” — black or white. Even after she gained fame for her role in the boycott, Parks continued to work as a seamstress, putting aside her needle and thread only in 1965 when Congressman John Conyers hired her as a secretary and receptionist. “You treated her with deference because she was so quiet, so serene,” Conyers said after her death.

Fred Korematsu, too, was a seemingly ordinary American who defied an unjust system. A 23-year-old welder from San Francisco, he refused to follow 100,000 other Japanese Americans to the internment camps during World War II, and was arrested.

While Korematsu was in jail the American Civil Liberties Union chose him (much as the NAACP had chosen Parks) to be their test case in a fight against the legality of internment. Korematsu’s case wound up before the Supreme Court, but in a 6-to-3 decision the country’s highest court declared that the government had a right to round up its citizens and imprison them, en masse, without trial. Korematsu, meanwhile, had become a pariah. The newspapers called him a spy; his fellow Japanese Americans, anxious to prove they were patriots, shunned him. “All of them turned their backs on me at that time because they thought I was a troublemaker,” Korematsu later said. After the war, Korematsu refused to speak of his earlier resistance. He felt remorse for his role in bringing about the Supreme Court decision that legalized the internment. His own daughter didn’t learn of her father’s wartime actions until she was a junior in high school.

Korematsu’s defining moment of courage would happen decades later, in the early 1980s, when a lawyer convinced him to take up his legal struggle once more. The lawyer, Peter Irons, had uncovered evidence that the government had exaggerated the dangers posed by Japanese Americans even while it was defending its policy of internment before the courts. Government lawyers offered Korematsu, then 64, a pardon. He refused. “As long as my record stands in federal court,” he said, “any American citizen can be held in prison or concentration camps without a trial or a hearing.” His conviction was eventually overturned — and with it, the legality of the Japanese American internment. Korematsu’s activism continued, however; in 2004, he filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, comparing the detention without trial of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay to those earlier human rights abuses perpetrated against Japanese Americans in the name of national security.

Fred Korematsu died on March 30, 2005. Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005. On the surface, they were ordinary Americans, thrust into extraordinary circumstances. And yet both showed a quiet dignity that history will surely remember, long after this year’s headlines have faded away.

Victor Tan Chen

For more about Rosa Parks and Fred Korematsu, I recommend this Korematsu profile in The New York Times Magazine and the extensive entry on Parks in Wikipedia, which were useful sources for this post.

Victor Tan Chen is In The Fray‘s editor in chief and the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Site: | Facebook | Twitter: @victortanchen

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