A Quiet Woman's Resonant Farewell

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

DETROIT, Nov. 2 -- Speakers and preachers turned Wednesday's funeral for civil rights icon Rosa Parks into a dynamic rally for social justice and a call to personal action, including what Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) termed "quiet Rosa Parks moments" that can change minds, and a nation.

A rapt crowd of 4,000 at Greater Grace Temple clapped and cheered a stream of eulogists who praised Parks's courage and delivered warnings about how far the United States has yet to come, 50 years after she sparked a bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., by refusing to yield her seat to a white man.

The audience repeatedly rose to its feet as politicians and pastors demanded activism and zinged Republican leaders in all but name. The Iraq war, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the health insurance shortage and record oil company profits all drew attention in a marathon memorial service that preceded Parks's burial beside her husband.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson rose to deliver the principal eulogy as the service entered its seventh hour. Another hour would pass before Parks's coffin would be carried to a horse-drawn carriage for the ride to a Detroit cemetery.

"I was telling the bishop earlier that I believe in short weddings and long funerals," Jackson said. "Some people's lives are worthy of taking the time to say goodbye to."

The line formed before dawn in a gritty neighborhood along Seven Mile Road on Detroit's north side. Parks, who died last week at 92, had already been celebrated in Montgomery and in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, but many more people gathered than even the cavernous church could accommodate.

Outside, a man in a tweed overcoat played a solemn "We Shall Overcome" on a saxophone. Inside, two gospel choirs did a rollicking version. Honorary pallbearers, most not in attendance, numbered 111. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan sat next to the Rev. Al Sharpton. Aretha Franklin sang a solo.

Two Air Force jets brought members of Congress, including important players in the Democratic leadership who paid their respects and rallied the overwhelmingly black audience. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) spoke, as did former president Bill Clinton, who talked of Parks's "grace and serenity" and credited her with "a single simple act of courage that struck a lethal blow to the foundations of legal bigotry."

Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) said Parks was "powerful because she was improbable. She was unexpected." Bishop Charles H. Ellis III called her a "most humble warrior."

Many spoke of the need to follow her example, to "catapult into action" after the sermonizing was over.

"Stand up, people. Speak out, people. Join something. Dedicate your life to something," said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), who spoke of troubled schools, deaths in Iraq and seniors who cannot afford medicine. The celebration will go to waste, she said, "if you don't take your souls to the polls and vote."

Joseph E. Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, criticized President Bush for honoring Parks the day before he nominated conservative federal judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Jackson labeled the move hypocrisy, saying from the lectern that Alito is "an extreme right-wing judge, antithetical to everything Rosa Parks ever stood for."

Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who hired Parks onto his congressional staff, talked of a race between "democratic destiny" and "imperial destiny." He said: "We've got a tremendous legacy to fulfill. You can't maintain a democracy and an empire simultaneously. Rosa, you taught me that."

Speakers kept returning to Parks's blend of courage and grace, determination and humility.

"The woman we honor today held no public office, she wasn't a wealthy woman, didn't appear in the society pages," said Obama, the only black senator. "And yet when the history of this country is written, it is this small, quiet woman whose name will be remembered long after the names of senators and presidents have been forgotten."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company