It has been a long time coming, but Rosa Parks, a figure of courage, inspiration and dignity for millions around the world, has a new, permanent place of honor in the U.S. Capitol.
A bronze statue, created by San Pedro sculptor Eugene Daub, was unveiled Wednesday to a room full of dignitaries including President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner , several hundred lawmakers and members of Parks’ family. Parks, who died in 2005, is the first black woman to have a full-length statue in the Capitol (although a bust of Sojourner Truth resides in the visitor’s center.)
“We do well by placing a statue of her here,” Obama said, “but we can do no greater honor to her memory than to carry forward the power of her principle and a courage born of conviction.”
Rep. James Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, called Parks “the first lady of civil rights, the mother of the movement, the saint of an endless struggle.”
On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks, then a 42-year-old seamstress, broke the law by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a crowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama. For her refusal she was arrested and local NAACP chapter partnered with the head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to use the arrest as a test case against segregation. With other ministers and community leaders they spearheaded a boycott that stretched for over one year. The senselessness of segregation, with rituals in place since the end of slavery now seem almost medieval in nature, but at the time, they carried the force of law. White people filled the bus toward the back, and black passengers filled it from the back to the front. If the both sections were full, new black passengers had to stand; if a white person boarded the bus, then everyone in the black row nearest the front had to get up to create a new row for whites people. Or, oftentimes, blacks were required to pay when boarding, exit and reenter the bus through a separate door at the back. Ultimately the U. Supreme Court declared that Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses were unconstitutional
For organizing the boycott, King and 89 others, including drivers who formed carpools, were indicted, fined and ordered to serve jail time.
Instead of crushing the movement, however, the penalties focused world attention on Rosa Parks, the unjust legal system in Alabama and throughout the south, Montgomery and Dr. King. King’s house, as was that of Rev. Ralph Abernathy, was firebombed, and in response he famously said: “We must meet violence with nonviolence. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. Remember this movement will not stop, because God is with it.”
Wednesday, Obama told the crowd that Parks’ moment of bravery helped bring about an unprecedented movement for equality.
“This morning, we celebrate a seamstress slight in stature but mighty in courage,” the president said. “In a single moment, with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America and change the world.”
The 9-foot-tall statue on a black granite pedestal, which Daub began to design in 2009, depicts Parks sitting with her hands across her lap, purse to the side. While it may seem passive, Daub said that it meant to evoke her spirit of defiance. The sculpture, which weighs 2,700 pounds, was authorized by Congress in 2005, shortly after the civil rights icon’s death.
The unveiling of the statue in the final days of Black History Month is a fitting tribute to the woman who made such a mark on the world, said Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas. “Rosa Parks’ quiet determination changed the course of history for this country and for African Americans in particular,” he said. “It is fitting that she is watching over the marble hallways of our nation’s house of democracy, quietly reminding us of the sacrifices and bravery it has taken to give all Americans a voice.”