Long night was worth the wait for Sister Rosa

Real Life

November 13, 2005|By JOE BURRIS | JOE BURRIS,SUN REPORTER

Washington -- The soft glow of night lights along Constitution Avenue illuminated the thousands who had arrived when it was still bright outside. By then it was 7:20 p.m., on Sunday, and on both sides of the street that bordered the U.S. Capitol, the crowd went three rows deep.

The woman of the hour had yet to arrive.

"Has Sister Rosa come yet?" asked latecomers, only to be pointed in the direction of flashing police cars in the distance that would lead the motorcade carrying the body of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks to the Capitol Rotunda.

My wife, 8-year-old daughter and I had just arrived from our home in Alexandria, Va. This was the moment we spoke about all week with great anticipation - a chance to pay respects to the woman who transformed the civil rights movement.

What we didn't anticipate was a long evening. My wife, Mpho, is seven months pregnant. My daughter, Nyaniso, had school the next day (she would attend only the second half), and I had the hour-plus commute to Baltimore. As I scanned the crowd, I pondered how we weren't leaving anytime soon.

Suddenly there was a police warning to keep back. Then a roar of ovation greeted the slow-moving procession: Motorcycles, buses carrying the Parks family and the Parks hearse.

From the back of the crowd, a teary-eyed woman who looked to be in her 50s split a path before her, knelt at the curb, and, as the hearse passed yelled, "Thank you! Thank you!"

That would set the tone for a most memorable evening.

After the procession passed, the crowd estimated in the tens of thousands scurried to get in a line that already went along the Reflecting Pool, across the National Mall, toward the U.S. Botanical Garden on Independence Avenue, up Capitol Hill and onto a security checkpoint. Between those markers, there were roped pathways similar to those at airport check-ins.

We got in line at about 7:45 p.m.

We arrived in the Rotunda around 1:30 a.m.

In between, most everyone enjoyed the camaraderie of those around them: people of all races, all ages, from throughout the country. We sat, took small steps and then long walks when the line finally moved. We complained about the stoppages and the chilly night air. But mostly, we laughed and talked.

And sang. Tunes such asWhen the Saints Go Marching In or Lift Every Voice and Sing would start yards away and travel from person to person until they echoed in the night.

My wife, who is from South Africa, compared the line to the long lines of voters during her country's first democratic elections, in 1994.

Yet around midnight, singing gave way to loud complaints about cold feet and aching backs. Some folks left in frustration. I looked at my wife and daughter, both of whom looked in no shape to be outside.

"OK," I said, "It's up to you two. What do y'all want to do?"

My daughter, her voice shivering in the cold from behind my wife's shawl, said, "I want to stay."

And so we did. Less than an hour later, we walked without stopping through the brightly lit, flower-draped Rotunda and stared at the shiny, closed wooden casket in the center of a room.

And then it was done.

As we left, I gazed at the thousands still in line. How many of us, I thought, would come away wondering if one minute inside the Rotunda was worth the wait?

Then I remembered a story my mother once told me about growing up in South Carolina. There were times, she said, when the Ku Klux Klan would venture into some of the most remote black neighborhoods after nightfall. They would stop at the first house where they spotted light, and when they left, there wouldn't be much house still standing.

With one act of heroism, Rosa Parks cast a light on injustice in the Jim Crow South that the entire world could see. We haven't been the same nation since.

For that, what's a few steps in the darkness?

joe.burris@baltsun.com

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