In the early 1960s, when Gene Parks was 16 years old, he spurred his first public controversy, writing in a letter to the editor that he looked forward to leaving his native Madison for a less racist community. The responses were mostly sympathetic, urging Parks to change his mind, but what actually prompted him to do so were the ones that called him the n-word: "It's better to stay and fight."
Stay and fight he did. Until his death in 2005 at age 57, Parks was Madison's premier malcontent, challenging the city to live up to its self-image. He was the city's first black Common Council member, an assistant fire chief and longtime affirmative action officer - a position he was fired from for being a bit too affirmative. (He later won a substantial judgment with back pay.)
"We've got to start telling people the truth," Parks once told Isthmus. "We need each other. Diversity is the theme of the next century. Bigotry and prejudice have no place." And, thanks to Gene Parks, less of a toehold.