With reverence and a deep sense of indebtedness, the nation's capital last night began its simple but dignified farewell for Rosa Parks, the humble woman whose courageous act 50 years ago led to the breakdown of racial segregation in the United States. A massive crowd of people of all ages, colors and political beliefs pressed together, then lined up patiently at the U.S. Capitol to view her coffin and talk about the enormous changes she brought the nation -- and them.
Parks, who died Oct. 24 at age 92, made history even in death. She became the first woman, and only the 30th American, to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. The nation's farewell to Parks, which began yesterday with a vigil and a memorial service in Montgomery, Ala., will continue today with a 1 p.m. service at Metropolitan AME Church.
A funeral and burial will be held Wednesday in Detroit, and President Bush has ordered that flags at the White House and other federal installations be flown at half-staff that day.
What struck many about last night's event was how much it seemed to reflect the guiding principles of Parks's long life: dignity and understatement. No elected officials, not even Bush, spoke at a brief service at the Rotunda, and the coffin itself -- a plain, highly polished, cherry-wood coffin with eight wooden handles -- sat in the center of the Rotunda, with no carving, flag or flowers upon it.
Shortly before 7:30 p.m., the motorcade -- a hearse, three Metro buses draped in black for the family and friends, motorcycles and squad cars -- arrived at the Capitol, receiving a huge reaction of applause from the waiting crowd.
Bush and first lady Laura Bush arrived in a separate motorcade. The stately quality of the event was striking for a woman who talked of growing up on her grandfather's Alabama farm, worked as a seamstress and married a barber, and never seemed to seek a spotlight for herself.
As the crowd waited quietly in ever-lengthening lines for the viewing, bundled up against the night chill, some held signs that read, "Thank You, Rosa Parks." Others spoke of "Miss Rosa" and her impact on their lives as if they had known the former Montgomery resident who decided one day in 1955 that she would rather go to jail than give up her bus seat to a white passenger. That act led to a Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transportation was unconstitutional, and the civil rights movement began to flower.
"Miss Rosa means a great deal to me," said Deric Colander, 41, of Chester, Va., who is retired military and arrived at the Capitol six hours before the public viewing of Parks's coffin was to begin. "Miss Rosa set the stage for a whole lot of opportunities I've had. She set the tone for the civil rights movement."
By the time the motorcade filled with dignitaries arrived from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the crowd waiting in the darkness outside the Capitol had grown to enormous proportions. It stretched from Second Street and Constitution Avenue to Fourth and Constitution, filling two giant fields.
Many had waited for five hours and still anticipated hours of waiting before they got to the Rotunda. At 10:30 p.m., the line snaked from one side of the Mall to the other, doubled up and then went almost to the doors of Union Station. Metro announced that it would stay open an extra hour, until 1 a.m., to accommodate the crowds. Early this morning, the wait was still estimated at five hours.
Officials said they would keep the Capitol open as long as it took. "It's almost as much as Reagan," said U.S. Park Police spokesman Bill Line, referring to the massive crowds at the public viewing of the former president last year.
As the Morgan State University choir, in gold-trimmed royal blue robes, sang a muted version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," members of the D.C. National Guard, who had carried the coffin from the hearse and up the steps, brought it into the Rotunda. The Bushes, along with leaders of the House and Senate, had stood silently for 15 minutes before the coffin as brought inside, more than an hour late.
The crowd of about 500 inside the Rotunda included dignitaries from D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his mother to actress Cicely Tyson. There were several Parks family members, along with many representatives and senators.
The Rev. Barry Black, chaplain of the Senate and a former U.S. Navy chaplain, offered the opening prayer. Then Sens. Ted Stevens, president pro tem, Bill Frist, the Senate leader, and Harry Reid, the minority leader, presented the Senate wreath with the help of Capitol police, placing it at the head of the casket.
The House of Representatives followed suit, with a prayer by its chaplain, the Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin. "Rosa Parks is still riding an eternal bus," Coughlin said. "We say to Mrs. Parks: Ride on. Ride on. Ride on to the Table of Equal Justice." Reps. Roy Blunt and Steny H. Hoyer placed a wreath at the foot of the coffin.
The Rev. Harold Carter of New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore spoke briefly, saying that Rosa Parks had "blessed unborn generations." Finally, the president and first lady stepped forward to present the presidential wreath for the center of the casket.
The last song, performed by the Morgan State group, was emotional, a standard from civil rights days, "If I Can Help Somebody, as I Travel Along, Then My Living Will Not Be in Vain." Many in the audience were in tears.
Finally, it was time for the waiting crowd to begin its slow, solemn march through the Rotunda. Inside, the crowd was hushed, except for the shuffling of feet and the repeated "thank yous" that people said as they passed by the coffin.
" 'Thank you, Rosa Parks. Thank you, Rosa Parks.' I kept hearing it over and over," said Melvin Thomas, 56, a retired teacher who lives in the District. "It was very quiet except for all of the 'thank yous.' "
Children born into a world that no longer requires separate facilities for whites and blacks formed a large portion of the crowd.
Earl Johnson, 51, a D.C. parks director who lives in Northwest Washington, brought his three nephews -- DeAngelo, 12, Patrick, 9, and Kyle, 5, because he wanted them to think about how different their lives would have been without people such as Parks.
"They know about it because I talk about it with them," Johnson said, "but they're not teaching our kids who Rosa Parks was, and what she did for them. But the movement is still going on today, and that's why I felt it was important to bring them."
Kevin Weaver, a schoolteacher from Newport, R.I., helped in his own small way to remedy that. He brought his two daughters, Grace, 14, and Kate, 10, to the viewing and had been planning a "Remember Rosa Parks" day for his fourth-grade class at Elmhurst Elementary when Parks died.
Now, he was bringing letters his students had written to Parks, hoping to walk them past her casket.
"My class has been studying you and I guess it was just a quisidents [coincidence] that you died yesterday," a letter from a boy named Matthew said.
"I just want to thank you for not giving up your seat," a girl named Kaitlyn wrote.
But for every child, there was also someone like Gussie Pendleton of Philadelphia. She is 77, and she can remember the civil rights struggle vividly. As she waited to bid farewell to Parks, she thought about all the horrors of those days -- and all the triumphs.
"The riots and the beatings, and the dogs -- I wouldn't tell my children about it for fear they would hate white people," she said. "Now I can sit on any place in the bus I want to. Today, I sat in the front seat."
Late last night, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) looked upon Parks's coffin and reflected on their decades-long friendship.
"She was more than a mother to the civil rights movement," the longtime rights leader said. "What she did, in a quiet, simple, dignified way, helped liberate a nation and made all of us better people."