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A Soldier for Justice Honored at Capitol

October 31, 2005|Emma Vaughn and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — At a ceremony under the Capitol dome, in language as dignified as the act that put her at the forefront of the campaign for civil rights 50 years ago, Rosa Parks was recalled Sunday as the woman who "ignited a movement that aroused our national conscience."

President Bush and his wife, Laura, were joined by congressional leaders in paying their respects to Parks, the first woman -- and only the second African American -- to lie in honor in the rotunda. Outside, thousands lined up to pay tribute, waiting patiently to file past her closed casket.

As a hearse carried Parks' casket from the Baltimore airport to the Capitol on Sunday evening, an empty 1950s-era bus followed, commemorating her quiet refusal half a century ago to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger. A small American flag waved above the windshield, and black bunting was draped below it.

A military honor guard brought Parks' casket into the rotunda as a choir from Morgan State University in Baltimore sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

"She ignited a movement that aroused our national conscience," said the Senate's chaplain, retired Navy Rear Adm. Barry C. Black. "By sitting down, she enabled millions to stand up in a better world."

Father Daniel Coughlin, the House chaplain, added, "Tonight, inspired by her life and leadership, we say to Mrs. Rosa Parks: Ride on, ride on. Ride on in the direction of endless hope."

Bush and leaders from the House and the Senate paused to place wreaths at either end of the intricately carved wooden casket but made no statements.

Afterward, the president and the first lady met briefly with Parks' family and friends.

Parks died Oct. 24 at her home in Detroit at the age of 92.

Her body was brought to Washington after a viewing Saturday and a service Sunday morning in her native Montgomery. Among the speakers at the Alabama service was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala.

"Without Mrs. Parks, I probably would not be standing here as secretary of State," she told an overflow crowd at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Outside the Capitol, a number of mourners -- holding signs that read "Thank you Rosa Parks" -- began arriving more than eight hours before the ceremony was to begin.

"This is a page in history for years and generations to come," said Tynetta Magruder, who traveled from New Jersey with friends and family. "Because of her strength, courage and presence, it is more than befitting to have her final minutes with us here on Earth displayed in this fashion."

On Dec. 5, 1955, Parks was on her way home from work as a seamstress when she was arrested for refusing to yield her bus seat. On the day she went to court, a young minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was among those who spoke out about the injustice. His words sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system -- the catalyst for the struggle for racial equality.

Some expressed surprise at the government's decision to allow Parks' casket to lie in the rotunda, an honor bestowed on only 30 individuals, most of them presidents or war heroes.

"It's really interesting that Rosa Parks was allowed to be honored in this way considering the fact that she wasn't a politician," said Kimberly Harper, a teacher from Fredericksburg, Va. "I think it will really open the door for the diversity of the different kind of people who will be honored for the incredible things they have done from this point on."

The rotunda was to remain open until midnight and will reopen at 7 a.m. today for three hours. Her casket will then be taken to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Washington for a 1 p.m. memorial service.

From there, the coffin will go to Detroit, where Parks had lived since 1957. Her body will lie in repose through Wednesday morning at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. A funeral is scheduled for that afternoon at Greater Grace Temple Church in Detroit.

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

Parks had been honored in the rotunda once before, in June 1999, as a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal. She was described on the medal, the highest award bestowed by Congress, as the "mother of the modern-day civil rights movement."

After her death last week, members of Congress from both parties offered high praise for the civil rights pioneer.

"The Capitol serves as a beacon of American liberty, freedom and democracy, and Rosa Parks served as the mother of the America we grew to be," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said in a statement.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who as a teenager was inspired by Parks' act of defiance, said: "This brave, courageous spirit ignited a movement -- not just in Montgomery, but a movement that spread like wildfire across the American South and the nation."

Lewis went on to work alongside Parks in the civil rights movement as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

The resolution that led to the viewing at the Capitol was sponsored by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who employed Parks for 20 years in his Detroit office.

The most recent individual to be honored in the rotunda was former President Reagan, who lay in state for three days last year. The first African American was Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut, who was killed in a shootout in 1998.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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