Local and national figures who paid tribute this week to the seamstress who became known as the mother of the civil rights movement vowed to keep the legacy of Rosa Parks alive.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) drew a direct link from Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., to today's fight for full voting rights for District citizens. Norton, who was the mistress of ceremonies at Monday's service for Parks at Metropolitan AME Church in downtown Washington, said "our country is enormously in debt to Rosa Parks."
The civil rights movement, Norton added, "was Rosa Parks's special gift to her people and to those who joined them . . . especially to the residents of the District of Columbia who still feed from her inspiration."
For Ernest Greene, it is critical that young people in the District be engaged with the civil rights generation. "We need to educate young people why Rosa Parks was important," he said as he left the service. "The issue seems to be we have thousands of young people in Washington who don't realize why this is important," he added.
Greene, a member of the Metropolitan church and the "Little Rock Nine," a group of black students who integrated the city's Central High School in 1957 with the help of federal troops, was among the many who paid tribute to Parks. They waited in long lines to view her coffin at the U.S. Capitol, waved as her procession passed by on city streets and listened to tributes inside and outside of the church. The throng overflowed from Metropolitan church onto M Street, between 15th and 16th Streets NW, then into a nearby office building for an electronic feed of the proceedings that sang her praises. She died Oct. 24 at age 92 in Detroit.
District activists at the memorial service were ready to rekindle the fire of the civil rights movement. "We must continue to struggle," said Malik Zulu Shabazz, a District lawyer and head of the New Black Panther Party. He stood in the crowd outside the church and listened to the service on loudspeakers. "We must honor our mother Rosa Parks as a symbol of the courage of the black woman. She had a profound impact on the black nationalist movement. . . . The point today is that we must continue the struggle and not romanticize the things of the past."
Lawrence Guyot Jr., an advisory neighborhood commissioner and former head of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, said, "Rosa Parks taught us that politics is about people, it is about faith and it is about hope. The important thing that we can do is empower ourselves."
To Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist who is frequently in the District, the message of the Parks tributes was simple. "The great thing that happen here today," he said, "is that this is the first time that America said thanks."