It was chilly in Washington Sunday night, just this side of uncomfortable, and shivering latecomers at the back of the line said the wait was rumored to be four hours. As it turned out, they were optimistic -- five was closer to the mark. Five hours of shuffling ahead and waiting, shuffling ahead and waiting, until at last they could file into the U.S. Capitol to honor one of the pivotal figures of the 20th century.

There were tens of thousands of people in that line to view the casket of Rosa Parks, the steely woman who sparked a revolution. The mood was subdued but not somber, and there was a sense of quiet celebration.

"She was like the link at the beginning of the struggle, the catalyst of the movement," said Raymond McDowell, a 39-year-old cashier from Alexandria. McDowell had somehow misplaced the rest of his family -- they were elsewhere in the line, he thought -- and he had to go to work in the morning, but here, at half-past midnight, he was still resolutely inching forward. "I figure it shouldn't be more than an hour and a half from here, maybe two hours," he said, with more hope than conviction.

McDowell, who is black, learned what he knows about Rosa Parks from history books. He was too young to have experienced the civil rights movement, but he knew how it had altered the course of his nation and his life. So he said he was going to stick it out, no matter how long it took. "You just have to pay your respects to someone as valuable as she was."

If there ever was a doubt about Parks's place in American history, last weekend thoroughly dispelled it. The country may be fractious and polarized, our politics may be hyperpartisan, but we all came together to honor a diminutive black lady from Alabama.

Parks has often been painted as almost an accidental revolutionary, but her act of insurrection was carefully calculated. She was a grown woman of 42 when in 1955 she refused to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery. She was already a civil rights activist, and she knew exactly what would happen when she defied that evil Jim Crow law. By holding her ground, she committed a deliberate act of civil disobedience.

Maybe if Parks had meekly moved to the back of the bus, someone else would have come along in a few months or years and filled her role. Maybe that someone else would have inspired the Montgomery bus boycott and drawn the world's attention to a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe history's course was inevitable.

But history found in Rosa Parks a perfect instrument. She challenged the white establishment in Alabama and the rest of the South to end their racist ways, and she challenged the rest of the country to live up to its ideals. But those weren't the greatest of her accomplishments. Her greatest achievement was to challenge other black Americans to rise up and say: No more.

Parks inspired a generation to sit wherever they wanted on the bus, to eat at whatever lunch counter they wanted, to enter department stores through the front door instead of the back. Her revolution took many years to complete. Thirteen years later, in my home town of Orangeburg, S.C., a demonstration ended with three black students being killed by police in an incident that became known as the Orangeburg massacre. The spark for the protest was something that seems almost incomprehensible today -- a segregated bowling alley.

Take a moment to think of that: a whites-only bowling alley. Three young men killed.

We have many problems in this great nation, and race remains one of them. But the passing of Rosa Parks is an occasion to remind ourselves how very far we've come. Parks changed a movement of activists and intellectuals into a mass movement, and that movement changed America. Her calm, purposeful bravery, in the right place at the perfect moment, provided the spark that kindled a righteous, cleansing fire.

It was inspiring on Sunday to see the president and the leaders of Congress laying wreaths at her bier, and to see the genuine emotion in their faces as they acknowledged her contribution. It was inspiring to see a black lady from Alabama receive honors usually reserved for presidents and conquering heroes. But it was even more inspiring to see that endless line outside the Capitol, people whose skin was black and white and every shade in between, patiently shuffling ahead and waiting.

That long line looked like a better America -- not perfect, but so much better.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com