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A Time for Respect and Rededication

Rosa Parks' funeral draws the famous and the unknown, united in appreciation and a belief that the struggle for civil rights is unfinished.

November 03, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

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

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

The public must "vote in every election" to protect such things as affirmative action, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) told the crowd. "This must be a time of challenge and a call to action."

Parks, 92, died in Detroit on Oct. 24. Her body was displayed in Montgomery, Ala., and later brought to Washington. She became the first woman and the second African American to lie in honor under the Capitol dome.

A delegation of about 100 congressional representatives, including Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), came to Parks' adopted hometown, joining singer Aretha Franklin, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former President Bill Clinton and hundreds of other prominent people in honoring Parks.

Again and again, Parks was described as the mother of the civil rights movement, an improbable warrior and a peaceful woman who spent the majority of 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 of mourners spent the night before on the sidewalks outside the church, determined to nab one of the 2,800 spots set aside for the public in the main hall.

Dannie Noel, a home healthcare worker from Detroit, said she arrived around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday with a stack of blankets, a camp chair and the feverish hope that she would be able to pray inside the same room as her hero's body.

By morning, as a biting autumn wind brought goose bumps and 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, 43. "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 if they perched on others' laps. Church officials said they ushered more than 1,000 others inside the church cafeteria and into various meeting rooms, where the service was shown on TV.

It still wasn't enough room. Outside, the line of people hoping to get into the service stretched for several blocks along West 7 Mile Road.

"Please, sir, I've come out from Texas for this. Can't you find a spot, anywhere?" Laura Collins, 63, begged a security guard at the entrance. "I'm short. I won't take much room. Please?"

The guard looked at the retired teacher helplessly, and asked her to be patient.

Throughout the day, mourners both famous and little-known stood on the bouquet-covered stage and gazed down upon the closed, intricately carved dark-brown casket. Hour after hour -- as gospel choirs sang and preachers had the packed crowd roaring "Amen!" -- speakers shared how a single act of defiance had affected 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 eulogized. People honor Parks and other civil rights leaders "not by words, but by committing ourselves to carry on their struggle one solitary act at a time," he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa agreed, and later said: "I went to UCLA on an affirmative action scholarship. Some would say I went in the back door -- but I walked out the front door. I'm here today because there's a Civil Rights Act. I'm here today because there was a Voting Rights Act."

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white passenger. She was then arrested.

At her court hearing, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the injustice, leading to a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system that became a catalyst for nonviolent protests across the country.

"In a region where gentlemen are supposed to give up their seats to ladies, Rosa Parks ignited the most significant social movement in modern American history," former President Clinton said.

Parks, long an activist, always grimaced at the notion that she refused to move because she was merely tired, said Johnnie Carr, 94, a schoolmate and president of the Montgomery Improvement Assn.

More than 10 years before the boycott, Parks was elected secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization that many Southern whites reviled.

Parks and her husband, Raymond, moved to Detroit in 1957 after receiving death threats.

"We all need to remember that her dream still hasn't been reached," said Thelma Jeanne Johnson, 67, who took a train from Chicago to attend the funeral. "Things have changed. We still have a long road to walk."

After the service, Parks' casket was placed in a glass-enclosed carriage drawn by white horses to be taken through the streets of Detroit and to a mausoleum, where she will be entombed alongside her husband and mother.

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