Thousands Pay Tribute

Rosa Parks is the first woman and second African-American to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda

October 31, 2005|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Beneath the vast dome of the Capitol Rotunda, friends, family and politicians gathered yesterday to pay tribute to Rosa Parks, the soft-spoken seamstress whose single act of defiance 50 years ago would transform the civil rights movement and catapult her to the status of national hero.

Parks is the first woman and second African-American to lie in honor in the Rotunda. She died at her home in Detroit last Monday at 92.

"Some might say she is lying in repose," said the Rev. Harold Carter, pastor of Baltimore's New Shiloh Baptist Church, one of several speakers during a moving ceremony. "But we know she lives on as a reminder for us to rise up and keep the march moving."

Baltimore's Morgan State University Choir sang "Battle Hymn of the Republic," and President Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, placed a wreath beside Parks' closed casket.

Bush issued a proclamation yesterday ordering that U.S. flags fly at half-staff on public buildings Wednesday as a mark of respect.

Many wiped away tears or respectfully bowed their heads during the brief ceremony.

Meanwhile, thousands of people stood in lines stretching blocks from the Capitol steps to pay homage to the civil rights activist who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Parks' subsequent arrest sparked the nearly 13-month Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and transformed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from a 26-year-old pastor into the leader of America's largest movement for social change.

As afternoon turned into evening, mourners hoisted signs reading, "Thank You Rosa Parks," and snapped photos of the pageantry. And when the motorcade accompanying her casket - including a vintage bus draped in black - turned a corner at Constitution Avenue, people cheered and a small group sang "We Shall Overcome."

"I feel like I know her; I had to be here," said Washington resident Margaret Moore, who arrived in line at the Capitol at 4:30 p.m. "I wouldn't have the job I have today, I wouldn't have anything it if weren't for Rosa Parks. This is a lady who paved the way for all of us."

In line were parents pushing strollers, church congregations, curious foreign tourists and civil rights stalwarts who drew on their memories of that era as they waited patiently for their brief moments passing through the Rotunda.

"She is representative of a whole lot of people whose names will never be known but who put their lives on the line to do something as radical as vote," said Eleanor Robins, 73, of Arlington, Va. "She made people feel like, `Maybe I can make change, too.'"

Robins said Parks and other civil rights activists stirred her to take a hard look at her own life. Growing up in white middle-class neighborhoods of Arlington, Robins said, she was shielded from the inequities of segregation, until she saw the civil rights movement unfold around her and wanted to be part of the transformation.

"It changed my life," Robins said, recounting how she volunteered when King brought his Poor People's Campaign to Washington.

"I never thought about being white; I just was," she said. "But I began to realize that my black friends couldn't stop thinking about their ethnicity because it led to so many inequities for them."

Fellow church member Pierre Moye, 44, of Washington said Parks' conviction should stand as a symbol to all Americans to stand their ground for what they believe.

Joan Avents, 55, of suburban Mount Rainier said she hopes that Parks' death inspires young people to become more involved in combating social problems such as homelessness, poverty and inequities in education.

"She had the courage to stand up for what she knew was right, even though she knew there would be consequences," she said.

Politicians and civil rights leaders praised the "mother of the civil rights movement" for her courage, tenacity and simple elegance.

"Hers is a powerful legacy of how a person on her own made a difference and changed the course of history," NAACP President and CEO Bruce S. Gordon said in an interview before the Rotunda ceremony. "And she was humble. I think if she was here to experience how she is being memorialized, she wouldn't have wanted all this."

The tribute was one in a series to honor Parks. Saturday, her body was flown from Detroit to Montgomery, Ala., where hundreds attended a viewing blocks from where she had been arrested on the bus. Afterward, they packed a ceremony at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, where fellow Alabama native and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered remarks.

Parks' body was flown yesterday afternoon to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport for ceremonies attended by Gov. Robert R. Ehrlich Jr. and other political leaders. Her body will remain in the Rotunda for the public to pay respects today from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.

At 1 p.m., political dignitaries and civil rights leaders will offer their remembrances at a memorial service at Metropolitan AME Church. Then Parks' body will be flown back to Detroit, where she had lived since 1957 and worked for U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Democrat.

James Douglass Haley, 50, of Washington said he was impressed with the public turnout, adding that it was only fitting for a woman of Parks' stature.

"I knew I had to be here, but all these people - it's a joy to see," he said. "This is exactly what needs to take place. This is about the continuing struggle for freedom."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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