Thousands bid Parks farewell

`Mother of rights movement' eulogized at 7-hour Detroit funeral

November 03, 2005|By P.J. HUFFSTUTTER | P.J. HUFFSTUTTER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DETROIT -- In a seven-hour funeral filled with song and eulogies, thousands of mourners crowded into Greater Grace Temple yesterday to pay final respects to Rosa Louise Parks, the woman whose act of defiance helped spark the civil rights movement.

As 4,000 attendees sat in the wooden pews, politicians and religious leaders used the pulpit to warn that the rights that Parks fought for are far from secure.

The public must "vote in every election" to protect such things as affirmative action, said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat. "This must be a time of challenge and a call to action."

Parks, 92, died Oct. 24 in Detroit. Her body was displayed in her native Montgomery, Ala., then taken to Washington, where she became the first woman and second black person to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.

A delegation of about 100 congressional representatives, including Sens. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, and John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, came to Parks' adopted home, joining singer Aretha Franklin, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, former President Bill Clinton and others in honoring Parks.

On Dec. 5, 1955, Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out, leading to a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system that became a catalyst for nonviolent protests across the country.

Again and again yesterday, Parks was described as the mother of the civil rights movement, an "improbable" warrior and a peaceful woman who spent her life fighting for racial equality.

"Mother Parks, take your rest. You have certainly earned it," said Bishop Charles Ellis III of Greater Grace Temple, who led the service.

Hundreds spent the night on sidewalks outside the church, determined to gain one of the 2,800 spots set aside for the public. Dannie Noel, 43, a health care worker from Detroit, said she arrived about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday with blankets, a camp chair and hope that she would be able to pray near her hero's body.

By morning, as a biting wind dropped the temperature into the 30s, she huddled next to strangers for warmth. But she was 10th in line - and guaranteed a seat inside the church.

"Mrs. Parks changed history, and her funeral is a historical moment in our lives," said Noel. "No matter what, I have to be here. I need to show my respect, for all she's done for this country."

By the time the funeral began at 11 a.m., the cavernous church was filled. The only way some mourners could sit down was on each other's lap. Church officials said they ushered more than 1,000 others inside the church cafeteria and into meeting rooms, where the service was shown live on television. Outside, the line of visitors hoping to get in stretched for blocks along West 7 Mile Road.

Throughout the day, mourners gazed upon the closed casket. Hour after hour, speakers shared how a single act of defiance had an effect on their lives decades later.

"It's a given that I would not be here today were it not for this small woman who lies here," Obama said. People honor Parks and other rights leaders "not by words, but by committing ourselves to carry on their struggle one solitary act at a time."

P.J. Huffstutter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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