President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio applaud at the unveiling of a statue of Rosa Parks, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
WASHINGTON — The nation’s most powerful politicians honored Rosa Parks on Wednesday by unveiling her statue in a permanent place in the U.S. Capitol. President Barack Obama praised Parks as an enduring reminder of what true leadership requires, “no matter how humble or lofty our positions.”
Parks became the first black woman to be depicted in a full-length statue in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. A bust of another black woman, abolitionist Sojourner Truth, sits in the Capitol Visitors Center.
“We do well by placing a statue of her here,” Obama said. “But we can do no greater honor to her memory than to carry forward the power of her principle and a courage born of conviction.”
The unveiling brought Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional leaders together in the midst of a fierce standoff over automatic spending cuts set to go into effect on Friday.
Setting that conflict aside, Obama and Boehner stood on either side of a blue drape, tugging and pulling in opposite directions on a braided cord until the cover fell to reveal a 2,700-pound bronze statue of a seated Parks, her hair in a bun under a hat, her hands crossed over her lap and clasping her purse. Obama gazed up at it, and touched its arm.
At the same time across the street, conservative Supreme Court justices voiced skepticism about the relevance of the Voting Rights Act, one of the major legislative victories of the movement to which Parks devoted her life.
Parks’ civil rights movement colleague Jesse Jackson, whose son former Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. sponsored the bill to place Parks’ statue in the Capitol, said Parks “fought her way into history,” and on three occasions, took literacy tests required of blacks who wanted to vote. She passed all three, Jackson said.
Parks’ statue is positioned between those of suffragist Frances E. Willard and John Gorrie, considered the father of refrigeration and air conditioning. Boehner, R-Ohio, pointed out that Parks’ gaze seems to fall directly onto a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
“Here in the hall, she casts an unlikely silhouette — unassuming in a lineup of proud stares, challenging all of us once more to look up and to draw strength from stillness,” Boehner said.
Parks died in 2005 at age 92. Dozens of her family members, many of them nieces and nephews, attended Wednesday’s ceremony and said they were pleased to see their ancestor honored.
“Racism is a continual struggle,” said Zakiya McCauley Watts, 28, of Detroit. “We have the laws, but we have to have the mindset to back that up. People see all types of injustice happening and no one is doing anything about it,” Watts said.
Watts’ cousin Faye Jenkins, 28, of Cincinnati, Ohio, said she volunteers with inner-city youth providing counseling, helping teenage moms and working with the homeless. She said the statue of Parks will tell the younger generation “to always just do the right thing.”
On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man in segregated Montgomery, Ala. She was arrested, touching off a bus boycott that stretched over a year.
Her act of disobedience, and the masses of protesters who walked for months on end rather than break the boycott, are the reason “that I stand here today,” the president said.
“It is because of them that our children grow up in a land more free and more fair, a land truer to its founding creed,” Obama said. “And that is why this statue belongs in this hall — to remind us, no matter how humble or lofty our positions, just what it is that leadership requires.”
Some at the event echoed Obama’s sentiment.
“The struggle goes on. The movement continues. The pursuit is not over. To honor Rosa Parks in the fullest manner each of us must do our part to protect that which has been gained,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.
Dorthula Green, 58, took an early train from New Haven, Conn., to join a line of ticketholders waiting in the Rotunda to see the statue on its debut.
“When I heard that this was happening, I said, ‘I gotta be here,'” Green said. “I grew up in South Carolina. I knew the history and the kinds of things she went through.”