With less than two weeks remaining before the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., the House and Senate yesterday unanimously approved legislation that will make Parks the first African American woman to be honored permanently in National Statuary Hall.
The legislation directed the Architect of the Capitol to commission a statue of Parks, a woman whose courageous stand on Dec. 1, 1955, helped to ignite the modern civil rights movement and usher in the desegregation of America. Her likeness will stand beside presidents and staunch segregationists in the hall, including Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.
Parks, 92, died of natural causes last month in her Detroit home. In a gesture marking her importance, she became the first woman and the first African American woman to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda.
She was also eulogized in Montgomery, near her birthplace in southern Alabama, and in Detroit, where she moved to find work and escape death threats from segregationists who denounced her action.
Tens of thousands of Americans lined up in all three cities to view her coffin, which lay open only in Detroit. She was hailed as the mother of the civil rights movement in life and in death.
"This is an extraordinarily historical day for Rosa Parks, for her legacy and all who have benefited from the extraordinary achievements of this woman," said Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who sponsored the House bill.
Jackson said that he and the 40 black members who joined his bill would not be in the House were it not for Parks. White members also got behind the bill, giving it more than 200 co-sponsors.
The Senate passed its own version of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), as night fell.
The bills were tailored so that a full statue of Parks would stand beside the nation's greatest leaders, and not suffer the fate of Martin Luther King Jr., whose bust was commissioned decades ago by a Capitol architect who was given a choice between that and a full statue.
King's likeness was placed in the Rotunda, away from the more distinguished group, Jackson said.
Parks was with King when he made his first fiery sermons in Montgomery's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he was pastor. He was chosen to lead the movement she almost single-handedly started.
It has been said that Parks stood her ground when police ordered her to stand at the back of a crowded bus so that a white man could sit because she was tired.
But while eulogizing her in Montgomery, Jesse L. Jackson Sr., the congressman's father, said she told him she defied the law because of the brutal lynching of black teenager Emmett Till by two white half-brothers in Money, Miss., that summer.
"She did more to build a more perfect union than most statues in the room" where her likeness will stand, Jackson said.