Two recent events — the deaths of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks (search) and former Rep. Ed Roybal (search) — have served as vivid reminders of how our country has changed in a relatively short period of time.

When all is said and done, societal change is one of the great strengths of our nation.

When I graduated from high school in Ft. Worth, Texas, in 1960, our local school system was still segregated. School integration did not come to my hometown for another eight years. Today, everyone takes for granted the great strides we have made as a country in extending economic and political rights to African Americans.

In 1966, the University of Kentucky fielded an all-white basketball team in the NCAA finals. Kentucky was embarrassed that night by a team of five black players from Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso), and segregated athletics in this country ended. That game is being immortalized in a new Disney film this fall.

In 1963, the only two Hispanic members of Congress, Ed Roybal and Henry B. Gonzalez, were from California and Texas, states with the largest Hispanic population in the country. Today, there are several dozen Hispanics in Congress. Bob Menendez of New Jersey serves as Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the third ranking leadership position for House Democrats. Alberto Gonzales serves as Attorney General of the United States.

In 1970, when I graduated from law school, there had been only three women federal judges in the entire history of our country, and all three were still serving. I clerked for one of these three, U.S. District Judge Sarah T. Hughes of the Northern District of Texas, that year. Today, there are scores of women on the federal bench. Two Supreme Court justices are women. Half of the students entering law schools are female.

In 1978, the year I was first elected to Congress, there were no openly gay members of either the U.S. House or Senate. Today, there are three openly gay House members — one from Massachusetts, one from Arizona and one from Wisconsin. All three (one Republican and two Democrats) are highly respected by their colleagues and make major contributions to the legislative process.

When my wife, Kathy, entered active duty in the United States Army in 1974, we still had a separate Women’s Army Corps (WACs). Today, women are fully integrated into all our services and a number of women, including Kathy, have risen to the general officer ranks. Women serve beside men in Iraq in all but the infantry, armor and special forces, and play a major role in combat support. One woman was recently awarded a Silver Star for bravery for her service there.

In 1984, when Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro for vice president, she became the first woman to be nominated by either major political party for either president or vice president. In 2000, Joe Lieberman became the first person of the Jewish faith on a major party ticket when he was nominated for vice president. Today, it is a foregone conclusion that a woman, a Jew, a black or a Hispanic could well be elected president or vice president in the near future.

Until 1992, no black had been elected to Congress (other than during reconstruction) from five Southern states with large black populations: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Alabama. Now a total of eight blacks serve in Congress from those states.

Until 1997, no woman or black had ever served as secretary of state. Now, the last three Secretaries of State include a white woman, a black man, and now a black woman.

It is easy to forget the enormous changes that have occurred in our nation throughout the last 50 years. We are no longer a totally white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, male-dominated society, and our country is the better because of it.

It is America’s adaptability, and the progress we have made on behalf of all our people, that set us apart from much of the rest of the world.

There is a reason why many of the brightest and most hard-working people in the world still want to come to America. We can’t absorb all who want to come to our shores, but we should take pride in the fact that America is still viewed as the land of opportunity. It is our ability to change and provide equal opportunity for all our people that is the essence of our greatness. Every so often, it is appropriate to reflect on what makes us great.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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