She was a seamstress whose simple and defiant act more than half a century ago galvanized a movement and propelled her into history.
On Wednesday, President Obama and congressional leaders unveiled a nine-foot bronze statue of Rosa Louise Parks, making her the first black woman honored with a full-length statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
Parks, born 100 years ago this month in Tuskegee, Ala., was a civil rights icon whose activism led to the desegregation of public facilities across the South and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, portions of which were being argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday as the statue was being dedicated.
It was a congressional homecoming of sorts for Parks, who worked as an aide to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) for nearly two decades in his congressional office in Detroit. And when she died in 2005, she became the first woman and second black person to be honored with a casket viewing in the Capitol Rotunda. Slain U.S. Capitol Police officer Jacob Joseph Chestnut was the first African American so honored, in 1998.
The statue renders her as legions of schoolchildren will probably think of her — sitting primly with ankles crossed, hands in her lap, clutching a purse and staring straight ahead.
Obama joined with House and Senate leaders as well as relatives of Parks in unveiling the statue, which comes as the Postal Service released a stamp this month honoring the longtime civil rights leader.
Obama drew a direct connection between his presidency and Parks’s activism.
“Rosa Parks tell us there’s always something we can do. She tells us that we all have responsibilities, to ourselves and to one another,” he said.
Recalling Parks’s years of activism, he said, “She reminds us that this is how change happens — not mainly through the exploits of the famous and the powerful, but through the countless acts of often anonymous courage and kindness and fellow feeling and responsibility that continually, stubbornly, expand our conception of justice — our conception of what is possible.”
The Rosa Parks legend dates back to 1955, when Parks, then 42, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and was arrested.
Parks would later recall in an interview the words she exchanged with the police officer.
“I said, ‘Why do you push us around?’ He said, ‘I do not know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.’ ”
Her cause and her case catapulted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to prominence and led to a year-long boycott, stirring thousands of African Americans to organize and to protest against segregation.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1956 that Alabama’s segregated bus system was unconstitutional about a year after Parks refused to give up her seat.
Lionized as the “mother of the civil rights movement,” Parks became an iconic figure, praised for her “quiet dignity that was itself an argument against unfair treatment under the law.
“With this statue, we affirm that the courage and the cause of Rosa Parks not only earned her a place in the hearts of all Americans, but a permanent place among the other figures in this hall of national memory,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Rosa Parks may not have led us to victory against the British. She didn’t give a single speech in the Senate or the House, or blast off into space, or point the way in the Western wilderness. Yet, with quiet courage and unshakable resolve, she did something no less important on a cold Alabama evening in 1955.”
The statue, sculpted by Eugene Daub and co-designed by Rob Firmin, was the first full-size statue to be commissioned and paid for by Congress since 1873.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called the dedication “a red-letter day for the American people.”
“Here in the Old Hall, she casts an unlikely silhouette: unassuming in a lineup of proud stares, challenging us once more to look up and draw strength from stillness,” Boehner said, noting the long march of history that led to this moment. “So we place her here, in a chamber where many fought to prevent a day like this . . . and right in the gaze of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. It brings to mind Lady Liberty herself, rising amid the titans of finance and presiding over New York Harbor, the promise of America clear for all to see.”
President Bill Clinton awarded Parks a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, recalling that, as a 9-year-old, he was moved to begin sitting in the back of the segregated Arkansas public buses in solidarity with Parks and other African Americans.
“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.”