An Overflowing Tribute to an Icon

The body of Rosa Parks is removed from Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC, following a memorial service in her honor. Parks, 92, died Monday, Oct 24, 2005.
The body of Rosa Parks is removed from Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC, following a memorial service in her honor. Parks, 92, died Monday, Oct 24, 2005. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)

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By Debbi Wilgoren and Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

America's mighty and meek converged on a historic black church in downtown Washington yesterday afternoon for a hand-clapping, arm-waving, tear-inducing tribute to Rosa Parks, the civil rights matriarch who died last week at age 92.

It was the final segment of a 20-hour memorial visit that drew an estimated 40,000 people to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where Parks's body, in a polished wood coffin, had lain in honor overnight.

Mourners filled the 2,500-seat sanctuary of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church to overflowing, and hundreds crowded onto sidewalks and into the auditorium of a nearby office building to hear or see broadcasts of the 2 1/2 -hour service. As those outside sang along with "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "We Shall Overcome," their voices could be heard inside the red-brick church.

In his invocation, the Rev. Grainger Browning of Ebenezer AME Church in Prince George's County, linked Parks, a deaconess in the denomination, to a pantheon of black American heroes: Nat Turner, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Lorraine Hansberry, Mary Church Terrell, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others.

The one-time seamstress was lauded by U.S. senators and representatives, civil rights leaders and pastors, actress Cicely Tyson and Alabama-born Johnnie Carr, 94, a friend of Parks's for more than 80 years.

After the service, the coffin and Parks's family and friends were flown to Detroit, where a funeral and burial are scheduled for tomorrow. President Bush has ordered that flags at federal buildings be flown at half-staff that day.

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey and broadcast journalist Gwen Ifill, black women who have risen to the top of their professions, spoke of learning about Parks as children, long before they could comprehend the impact of what she had done.

Ifill, 50, called Parks "the kind of woman that I would spend the rest of my life trying to be. . . . The woman we want our daughters, and our sons, to grow up to be."

Winfrey, 51, recalled her father telling her "about this colored woman who refused to give up her seat on the bus. In my child's mind, I thought, 'She must be really big,' " Winfrey said, to laughter.

When she met the diminutive Parks years later, Winfrey added, "I said, 'Thank you. For myself and for every colored girl and every colored boy.'. . . I would not be standing here today, nor standing where I stand every day . . . had she not chosen to say we shall not -- we shall not -- be moved."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) -- who said Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a public bus to a white man in 1955 "led kids like me to do sit-ins" -- acted as mistress of ceremonies. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) was in the pews along with most of the D.C. Council, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) and several other elected officials from the region.

Youths from a program Parks founded to teach later generations about the civil rights struggle walked slowly through the aisles, holding blown-up photos of Parks.


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