Grand tribute, humble figure

Tens of thousands wait hours to view Rosa Parks' casket in Capitol Rotunda

dignitaries honor civil rights legend

November 01, 2005|By KELLY BREWINGTON | KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The tiny, unassuming woman, who in her own quiet way made history 50 years ago, probably would not have expected such a grand national tribute. But yesterday, they streamed into a majestic church - a throng of celebrities, political dignitaries and civil rights legends - to honor former seamstress, Rosa Parks.

The first pew included such notables as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, lifelong activist Dorothy I. Height, television personality Oprah Winfrey and actress Cicely Tyson, who portrayed Parks' mother in the TV movie The Rosa Parks Story.

"May we all aspire to be strong, humble voices for justice," said U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat for whom Parks worked after moving to Detroit from Montgomery, Ala., in 1957. "Even in death, she has taught us that if everybody is equal we can all win."

Conyers recalled how during Nelson Mandela's visit to Detroit years ago, Mandela led the crowd in a chant of Rosa Parks' name.

"It made us realize," said Conyers, "this was an international phenomenon we are celebrating. Rosa Parks is worldwide."

Refusing to give her bus seat to a white man, Parks sparked a 13-month Montgomery bus boycott that transformed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from a pastor into a civil rights legend.

On Sunday, she became the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda, where people waited in long lines well past midnight for their chance to walk by Parks' casket. More than 30,000 people were estimated to have attended the viewing, which continued yesterday morning.

By the afternoon, Metropolitan AME Church - a 124-year-old church that once held the funeral for famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass - became the site of a stirring, gospel-filled tribute. The red brick church, its altar outfitted in regal purple velvet, is also known as the "national cathedral" of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, of which Parks was a lifelong member.

Behind the dignitaries, hundreds of mourners crammed the church's creaking wooden pews. They were friends, family members and well-wishers of all races and ages, some too young to have been alive during Parks' act of defiance. But they all knew that her action was the catalyst for a movement that would transform America.

Meanwhile, hundreds more filled the sidewalk outside to listen to the ceremony through speakers. They sang along to "We Shall Overcome," and "Oh Freedom," cheered and snapped photographs when Parks' casket exited the church.

Between rousing renditions of spirituals and moving passages of scripture, mourners remembered the "mother of the civil rights movement," and the woman they said was called by God to stand up for human rights.

Winfrey, who grew up in the South, said she remembered her father telling her of Parks' defiance. She said her childhood memory of Parks was that of a woman larger than life, who "must have been 100 feet tall" with a "shield to hold back the white folks."

"But in actuality, here was this petite, almost delicate lady who was the personification of grace," she said.

Winfrey offered a personal thank you to Parks for paving the way for African-Americans.

"In that moment when you refused to stand, you reclaimed your humanity and you gave us all back a piece of our own," she said. "Thank you, sister Rosa.

"I would not be standing here today, or standing where I stand today if she not chosen to say, `We shall not be moved. We shall not be moved.'"

Others shared personal reflections, depicting a woman so humble that she would have been embarrassed by a spectacular national tribute.

Parks' longtime friend and fellow NAACP activist Johnnie Carr, 94, spoke of the quiet schoolgirl with the courage of a giant.

"She was a quiet, very quiet, unassuming young girl," said Carr, who drew standing ovations as well as chuckles as she recounted the early years of their friendship.

Carr said she was stunned when Montgomery's NAACP president told her Parks had been arrested for refusing to relinquish her bus seat.

"I said, `You're kidding,'" Carr recounted. "But on Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks said, `Enough is enough, I ain't gonna take it no more.' And God gave her the strength to say, `If I must suffer, I will suffer today.'"

Journalist Gwen Ifill, a member of Metropolitan AME Church, said she aspired to be a woman like Parks.

"She was the kind of woman who did not have to raise her voice," she said. "Often there is more to be gained in the quiet conviction of a solitary act than in shouting and swagger. Rosa Parks reminded me what a true hero really is."

Others said Parks illustrated the power of nonviolent protest.

"Her simple act of civil disobedience was the equivalent to a nonviolent shot heard around the world," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the District of Columbia's delegate to the House of Representatives.

The ceremony was the second of three national tributes. A memorial was held in Montgomery on Saturday, and another will be held in Detroit tomorrow.

Shawn Brumfield, 29, said he left his home in Odenton at 6 a.m. to attend yesterday's ceremony. As he walked out of the sanctuary, he choked back tears, saying Parks' legacy changed him.

"I feel like it's my obligation to be here," he said. "She made me feel a commitment to do my best."

As a teenager, he didn't care to know much about the civil rights movement; he thought it was ancient history. As he grew older he learned more about slavery and that his wife traced her lineage back to slaves. Suddenly, the struggle for civil rights became real to him and Parks underscored that struggle, he said.

"I have developed a strong pride in my black community," he said. "For me, she is why we have real dignity."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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