WASHINGTON – Thousands of Americans – black and white, old and young – gathered at the U.S. Capitol on Sunday to pay tribute to Rosa Parks, the Alabama woman whose simple act of defiance helped spark the civil rights movement.
It was the first time a woman had ever lain in honor in the rotunda of the United States Capitol, and it was all the more impressive because Parks never held high government office. Yet she may have done more to change America than many of the 30 others, all men, who had been so honored on 28 occasions before her.
“That a black woman, a descendant of slaves, should be the first (woman) to lie in the U.S. Capitol, there’s justice in the universe,” said Efia Nwangaza, 58, an attorney from Greenville, S.C., who drove eight hours with two friends to be among the first in line to view Parks. Parks died Monday at her Detroit home. She was 92.
Parks was arrested by Montgomery, Ala., police on Dec. 1, 1955, after she refused to move to get up so a white man could have her bus seat. In response, a young local pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped form the Montgomery Improvement Association, which called for a boycott of the bus company. The boycott lasted 381 days and helped galvanize the civil rights movement.
Jerry Long, 60 and a resident of Arlington, Va., remembered the boycott when he was a boy of 10 living in Montgomery. “We saw the black workers walking to work, rain, sleet and shine,” he said. “My parents made sure I learned the lesson – that one person can make a difference.”
A team of eight military pallbearers carried Parks’ casket into the Capitol as the choir of Baltimore’s Morgan State University sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” beginning softly and building to a booming crescendo.
President Bush and first lady Laura Bush laid a wreath of red and white carnations along side the gleaming wooden casket. Leaders of Congress placed similar wreaths.
The only public remarks came from three clergymen, who offered prayers and eulogies in a 20-minute ceremony.
“By sitting down, this mother of the civil rights movement enabled millions to stand up in a better world,” said the Rev. Barry Black, the U.S. Senate chaplain.
“We say to Mrs. Rosa Parks: Ride on, ride on, ride on in the direction of endless hope to the table of equal justice and eternal peace,” said the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, the House chaplain.
The doors of the Capitol were opened to thousands shortly after 8:30 p.m., an hour and a half later than officials had planned. But the crowd, which stretched down the National Mall for blocks, waited patiently and quietly.
There were nearly as many white faces as black ones. Many said they had come by plane or had driven all night by car. Fittingly, many came by bus, and hundreds of parents brought their children.
Nwangaza recalled the emotions she had felt as a girl in Norfolk, Va., as the bus boycott wore on. “We kept a record of how many days,” she said. “It was tremendous excitement. If they can do it, we can do it.”
Others remembered Parks as a symbol of something larger. Annie Smith of Baltimore arrived outside the Capitol at 10 a.m. to be the first in line. She said viewing Parks was “a way to pay tribute to everyone who worked in the civil rights movement.”
Parks’ body was flown from Alabama aboard a chartered Southwest Airlines plane after a memorial service in Montgomery attended by hundreds, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a host of civil rights leaders.
The journey to Washington was rich in symbolism. The plane landed at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, which was recently renamed for Marshall, the civil rights attorney who became the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1967. Parks’ body was borne aboard a vintage 1957 bus, and many of those accompanying her body also rode to the Capitol in buses draped with black bunting.
The motorcade crossed the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, named for the abolitionist leader who was an adviser to President Lincoln during the Civil War.
There was no official count of the number waiting to file past Park’s body. Many carried signs saying “Thank you, Rosa Parks,” an indication that though Parks had been out of the public eye for years, her act was still fresh for many.
“I came out because Mrs. Parks was such an influence on all of us,” said Sammie Whiting-Ellis, 65, who was a high school student in Houston in 1955. “The same kinds of things were happening to people of color all over the South. It really inspired all of us and we had to begin to stand up and demand rights that no one had a right to take from you.”