WASHINGTON – The nation’s capital began preparations Friday for a historic weekend, when civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks will become one of only 30 Americans ever honored with the pomp and ritual of a Capitol Rotunda viewing.
The woman who quietly refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., a half-century ago will be the first woman and the second African American to lie at the same exalted place as presidents and war heroes.
The tribute became official Friday when the House passed a resolution approved earlier by the Senate, honoring a woman whose courage helped spark the civil rights movement and, eventually, landmark federal legislation.
So, on Friday, the machinery of protocol began its decades-old ritual of remembrance. The Rotunda will be open for public viewing of Parks’ coffin from 6:30 p.m. to midnight Sunday and from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday.
Many expect the vigil to draw crowds of people who remember Parks as a role model and an icon of the civil rights movements.
“I can’t imagine a higher honor than this,” said Richard Baker, chief Senate historian, who has studied and documented events beneath the great dome for three decades.
Parks transcended the partisanship that has deadlocked Congress on other issues. Within days of her death, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who employed Parks for 20 years in his Detroit office, had moved the resolution through both houses of Congress, with support from both sides of the aisle.
Baker said of Parks: “It’s been a long road from that bus seat to the Capitol Rotunda in Washington. This is a great memorial to the courage of one person.”
Buses will become part of the symbolism of the moment. Sixty Parks family members and dignitaries traveling from Montgomery will board three Metro buses draped in black bunting. The procession will be led to the Capitol by a 1957 bus, which will be empty of passengers, said Candace Smith, a Metro spokeswoman.
After memorials in Montgomery on Sunday, the coffin will be flown to the Washington area on a plane provided by Southwest Airlines and commanded by one of the first African American chief pilots for a commercial airline, said John C. White, spokesman for the NAACP.
The entourage and hearse are scheduled to arrive from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport at the Capitol at 5:30 p.m. The coffin will enter the Capitol via the grand East Steps. There will be a tribute including a choir, wreath laying and prayers, followed by public viewing.
After the viewing Monday, the coffin will be taken to Metropolitan AME Church in downtown Washington for a 1 p.m. memorial service.
In the past, the nation has come to the Capitol to pay tribute to presidents, senators, generals and unknown soldiers. This is the first time a private citizen renowned for social activism and the first time a woman will be the focus of the ritual.