Rosa Parks, the African American seamstress who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., 50 years ago and lent a spark to the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement, is expected to make history again as the first woman ever to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda.
The Senate approved a resolution last night enabling the honor, and the House is to consider it today. The U.S. Capitol Police and the staff in the office of the Architect of the Capitol already had begun working on logistics for the event, which the resolution said would take place Sunday and Monday.
Since her death last Monday in Detroit at age 92, churches, civic organizations and individuals have clamored to pay tribute to Parks. Among them was U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). Parks had worked in Conyers's Detroit office for more than 20 years.
After looking at the list of tributes he envisioned since her death -- " a statue, a stamp, a resolution, a memorial service" -- Conyers said it occurred to him that only the vigil reserved for statesmen or warriors would be right. He authored the resolution to permit Parks to lie in honor inside the Capitol.
"We think having her body lie in honor in the Rotunda is probably the most expressive way that we in government can let everyone know that the legacy of Rosa Parks is embraced by the federal legislature," Conyers said yesterday. "I must say that the bipartisan support has been excellent."
It would be the first time a woman has been so honored and one of the few occasions for a citizen who did not hold an elected office. Americans have quietly shuffled past the coffins of presidents Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, among others. They have mourned the unknown soldiers of both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam. In 1998, a Rotunda vigil was held for U.S. Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective Mike Gibson, who were shot to death in an ambush inside the Capitol. Chestnut was the first African American to be honored; Parks would be the second.
Parks was arrested in Alabama on Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. Within days, a 380-day bus boycott began, and the unrest led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated the city's public transportation. Her arrest also triggered mass demonstrations, brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. into the limelight and eventually transformed schools, workplaces and housing along the road to equal rights for all Americans.
Yesterday, while Congress voted on the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act and the Katrina Financial Services Act, Conyers waited to present his resolution, stating that "in recognition of the historic contribution of Rosa Parks, her remains be permitted to lie in the rotunda of the Capitol." Conyers said he had the votes to make it pass, including support from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)
The staff in the office of the Architect of the Capitol did not wait for a vote to start preparations, beginning to orchestrate logistics, seating and placement of the casket, said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the architect.
After years with few such vigils -- only for senator and congressman Claude D. Pepper (D-Fla.) in 1989 and the police officers in 1998 -- the architect's staff had gotten out of practice, but the vigil for Reagan changed that. Now the staff is "more prepared" and ready to set the grand and complicated ritual into motion, Malecki said.
U.S. Capitol Police also undertook plans to help the event be "as dignified as possible," said U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.
Parks's body will be the focus of honor in three cities this weekend and next week -- in Montgomery, Washington and Detroit -- said John White, spokesman for the NAACP. Parks was once president of the group's Montgomery, Ala., chapter.
Her body will be flown from Montgomery to Washington on Sunday. A memorial service is scheduled for Monday morning at Metropolitan AME Church, 1518 M St. NW. Funeral and other services will be in Detroit.