All the lions of the movement were there, some quieted by age now, hugging one another and standing for photo ops.
Julian Bond, Joseph Lowery, Ron Dellums, Andrew Young, Dick Gregory, Jesse Jackson, this is a group that--these days--gets together most often at funerals. But yesterday they gathered at the Capitol to honor a tiny, frail woman. A woman who, 44 years and a lifetime ago, came to symbolize the fight for civil rights.
And perhaps it was only fitting that even after all the victories, the move to award the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks had still required activism, organizing and a helpful dose of righteous anger.
Parks, now 86, spoke little during the ceremony. But her presence was a powerful reminder that the civil rights movement, which had been bumping along in fits and starts for years, finally pushed its way onto the national agenda in 1955. That was the year Parks refused to yield her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala. That small decision led to a lengthy black boycott of the bus system and helped propel the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the forefront of the movement.
There was political preachifying, personal testimony, and ministry in song in the East Rotunda. President Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) joined opera diva Jessye Norman in multiple verses of the "black national anthem," "Lift Every Voice and Sing."
Clinton, of course, had just the story to fit the occasion. After hearing of Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott as a 9-year-old in Little Rock, Clinton said, he and his friends "began to sit on the back of the bus when we got on," in symbolic solidarity. The crowd roared.
"It is a celebration of the life of Rosa Parks receiving this medal while she can still see it, still feel it, still hold it," said Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.), who introduced the legislation to award Parks the medal.
Visitors packed the Rotunda. A rainbow coalition--across colors, generations and political affiliations--filled every seat and stood in rows three deep at the back of the room. Jackson sat next to J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was there. So were Colin Powell, Martin Luther King III, Dorothy Height and Mamie Till Mobley, mother of 14-year-old murder victim Emmett Till. There were actors like Ruby Dee, Cicely Tyson and Roscoe Lee Brown. And Hill staffers brought small children to have a look at a figure from the history books.
When she got to Congress in 1997, Carson thought Parks had already received the Congressional Gold Medal, and said yesterday that the award was long overdue. House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Tex.) agreed. "I think it is overdue," he said, "and I can offer no explanation for it. I just hope we don't let that fact mar the occasion today."
When Carson introduced the legislation in February to honor Parks, the bill had about 40 co-sponsors, mostly members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But the campaign gained momentum after Carson wrote to the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," which airs locally on WHUR-FM, and enlisted the help of commentator and "BET Tonight" host Tavis Smiley. The bill wound up with 329 co-sponsors.
Radio listeners were told to "call, fax, e-mail, carrier-pigeon" their representatives to urge support of the bill. During a six-week period starting in February, Smiley kept a running tab of who was on board and outed representatives who he felt were dragging their feet.
"I'd like to thank the listeners and hosts of the 'Tom Joyner Morning Show' and especially Tavis Smiley," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) during the ceremony. "Their grass-roots efforts helped remind many members of Congress of the need to honor this woman."
Parks, who was active in the NAACP during the 1940s and '50s, later served as an aide to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich) for nearly 20 years. In 1987, she founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development to offer mentoring to black youngsters.
Late in the ceremony, Parks, her voice a gossamer whisper, took the podium. "We want to continue to fight so that all people have equal rights," she said as the crowd leaned forward to hear. "I am happy to be here. I know all of you must be happy to be here, too."
"We're happy," came a yell from the back, and the audience broke into sustained applause, glad to have the chance to say they were there. To say they heard Rosa Parks speak. Cheering as if it might be their last chance. Few cheered louder than Smiley and Joyner. Across the generations and over the airwaves, it was a civil rights jubilee.
CAPTION: The president looks at a Congressional Gold Medal design with Rosa Parks.
CAPTION: Seated next to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and President Clinton, Rosa Parks smiles during the ceremony at which she received the Congressional Gold Medal.
CAPTION: Rosa Parks, 86, whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955 symbolized the start of the civil rights movement, received the Congressional Gold Medal yesterday.(Photo ran on page A01)