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Rosa Parks Rallies a Nation even in Death
By: Hazel Trice Edney
NNPA Washington Correspondent
Originally posted 11/1/2005

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (NNPA) – Rosa Louise Parks, who sparked the nation’s civil rights movement 50 years ago when she refused to give up her seat to a White man and move to the back of a bus, was given first-class honors this week as her body was flown from her adopted hometown of Detroit to Montgomery, where the bus incident happened, and on to Washington, D.C., where she became the first woman to lie in state under the rotunda of the U. S. Capitol.

Repeatedly characterized as a humble “woman of quiet strength,” Parks – even in death – seemed to fuel the unfinished civil rights agenda as she was greeted and viewed by thousands of people when her body was memorialized in Montgomery and then in Washington, D.C. where thousands lined the streets for hours just for a few seconds to view her body.

An entourage of approximately 80 family members, friends and members of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Montgomery, quietly hummed the words of the civil rights anthem,
“We Shall Overcome,” as D.C. National Guardsmen escorted the mahogany coffin up the steps into the Capitol to be honored by dignitaries, congressional representatives, House and Senate leaders, and President and First Lady George and Laura Bush before the public viewing.
In the days following her Oct. 24 death, many honored her for her impact on the past. Others seized the moment to use her impact for the future.

“We appreciate the ceremony that the Congress is affording us, transporting her remains around the country, letting her remains lie in honor in the rotunda. But Secretary Rice and President Bush, we really want the Voting Rights Act extended as a living memorial,” civil rights leader Jesse Jackson Sr. had said earlier in an overflow Alabama memorial service after thousands viewed her body at the St. Paul A.M.E. Church. “Her mission is unfinished. The struggle falls upon us, the living. She is gone on to glory. We are left to tell the story and keep sitting in and marching and fighting.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who grew up in Birmingham, 90 miles north of Montgomery, was the first to speak at the memorial. She credited Parks for her rise to the position of first Black female secretary of state. “I can honestly say that without Mrs. Parks, I probably would not be standing here today as secretary of state.''
Bush ordered that U. S. flags be flown at half-staff on Wednesday, Nov. 2, the day of the funeral in Detroit at the Greater Grace Temple.

But Jackson and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, both of whom marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the struggle for civil rights, warned that the Bush Administration has been slow to agree to push for the renewal of parts of the Act that will expire in 2007.

“We must be aware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, who continue to try to defeat her purpose,” Jackson said of Parks, who died of natural causes at the age of 92.
New York Activist Al Sharpton reminded that if Parks had just changed her seat, “Colin Powell would be sitting in a segregated Army barracks…President Bush, President Clinton, President Johnson, all of them picked fruit from the tree that Rosa Parks planted.”

Martin Luther King III, former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said, “She was a gentle giant.”

The journey of Parks’ body in the belly of a chartered Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 jetliner, accompanied by her friends, relatives and members of the Institute, went from Detroit to Montgomery, to D.C. and back to Detroit for funeral services on Wednesday. The plane, donated by Southwest, was flown by the nation’s first Black chief pilot, Captain Lou Freeman.

Freeman, who has flown 737s for Southwest for 25 years, said in an interview with the NNPA News Service that Parks’ influence in his life not only opened doors for his advancement, but also inspires his courage to stand for justice, even in hiring and board interview processes in Southwest.

“Sometimes there are some questions that need to be answered. And to be able to answer it from my perspective, being a Black pilot, is different from a perspective of other people in the room who are not Black,” he said. “She showed that you can be a small person but have a big voice and make a big impact. And that makes a big difference.”

Parks’ funeral services were handled by the Swanson Funeral Home, Inc., of Pontiac, Mich., a stipulation that Parks made in her will more than 20 years ago, says O’Neil D. Swanson, the firm’s president and a long-time friend of the Parks’ family.

“This is one of the greatest honors that’s ever been bestowed upon me,” Swanson said. “People see Mrs. Parks’ celebrity status. I feel that’s a gross understatement. If you want to talk about status, I think it was saintly status.”

Linda E. Swanson, his daughter, who assisted with the arrangements, said she’s admired Parks since a child.

“She was bigger than life. To meet her was to experience history leaping from the pages,” she said.

The Swansons stood with awe at the Detroit Metro Airport Friday morning as the cardboard box with the name, “Rosa Parks”, scribbled in Black ink was loaded into the belly of the plane.

Swanson told the crowd on the plane that Parks received excellent care in her sunset years.

“I have never in my life seen anyone that has gotten the care, the love as Rosa Parks had. I have never seen anyone who has been confined to the chair, confined to the bed and see the condition of her body,” he said. “Her body was like a baby’s body, not even a pimple on her. I will say that speaks volumes to her caregivers.''

The caregivers were mainly Lois Harris, who was in the room with Parks when she died; Carolyn Green, a cousin of Parks, and Elaine Steele, who cared for Parks for 43 years and was a co-founder of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in Montgomery.

“Her final moments were that of quiet strength, the way that she led her life,” said Steele. “She had gone in a very quiet, peaceful way.”

As the plane touched down at the Montgomery Aviation field, the family smiled as the Montgomery Fire Department formed a “water arch,” spraying high-powered water hoses to form a rainbow-shaped waterfall over the plane in honor of Parks. Ironically, in years past, fire hoses were often aimed at protesters, not to honor one.

During a brief color guard ceremony at the airport, Parks’ Mahogany casket was draped with nine dozen yellow roses presented by the Metro-Montgomery Branch of the NAACP.

A motorcade led by police officers, the hearse carrying Parks, five white limousines and three buses, weaved about five miles through the heart of the city, past her home, past the Dexter King Memorial Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King’s first church; past the state capitol and past the Rosa Parks Museum before ending five blocks from St. Paul.

There, her coffin was placed in a carriage drawn by two horses and driven the rest of the way to the church with throngs of family and people following.

Laytaeanna Smith, 8, held a sign that read: “We remember Rosa Parks.”

Smith said, “She risked her life to save the country.”

Parks was secretary of the Metro-Montgomery NAACP when she was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955 and found guilty of breaking segregation laws. The arrest resulted in a 381-day bus boycott.

“Her grace and courage under pressure set a high bench mark for us all,” said Lillian Jefferson, president of the NAACP chapter. “She is a hero for all to emulate.”

In response to calls for a pardon for the charge, Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright got a standing ovation at the memorial when he said, “You cannot pardon someone who hasn’t done anything wrong. I ask Mrs. Rosa Parks to pardon us; to pardon our city.”

Bruce Gordon, NAACP president and CEO, led the visiting delegation on the plane to the memorial service. He said, “Every African-American and every person in America owes a debt of gratitude to Rosa Parks for insisting that all people be treated with dignity and justice.”

Actress Cicely Tyson, who played the mother of Rosa Parks in the movie, “The Rosa Parks’ Story,” gave a stirring tribute from the Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Mother.”

“Three-hundred years in the deepest South. But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth,” she said. Reciting from the song, she said: “I shall not, I shall not be moved. I shall, I shall not be moved.”

Bishop Theodore Larry Kirkland of the Ninth Episcopal District AME Church, who preached the memorial sermon, compared Parks to Queen Esther of the Old Testament.

“She was used by God to speak truth to power,” Kirkland said. “She told Pharaoh and told the world that I have had enough.”

Congressman Artur Davis (D-Ala.) looked at the audience and said, “The fact that descendants of Confederate soldiers sit in this room today alongside the descendants of civil rights leaders is a miracle.”

Parks’ best friend, 94-year-old Johnnie Rebecca Carr, president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and veteran of the bus boycott, added perspective: “A woman sat down and the world turned around,” she said. Carr added, “The world has turned around, but not all the way.”

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