WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and congressional leaders unveiled a full-length statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks in the Capitol Wednesday, paying tribute to a figure whose name became synonymous with courage in the face of injustice.
Parks becomes the first black woman to be honored with 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.
Obama said that with the installation of the statue, Parks, who died in 2005, has taken her rightful place among those who have shaped the course of U.S. history. He said her presence in Capitol would serve to “remind us no matter how humble or lofty our positions, just what it is that leadership requires.”
Obama and House Speaker John Boehner jointly led the unveiling, standing with the statue between them as they grasped and pulled in opposite directions on the braided cord that held the covering. Congressional leaders in the House and Senate joined Parks’ niece in tugging on the cord.
“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 statue portrays Parks seated, wearing a hat and clutching her trademark purse — “a permanent reminder of the cause she embodied,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The several hundred lawmakers, family and congressional staff who gathered for the ceremony in the vaulted hall rose to their feet and whooped as Boehner opened the ceremony.
“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,” said Boehner, R-Ohio.
Parks is famous for her 1955 refusal to give up her seat on a city bus in Alabama to a white man, but there’s plenty about the rest of her experiences that she deliberately withheld from her family.
While Parks and her husband, Raymond, were childless, her brother, the late Sylvester McCauley, had 13 children. They decided Parks’ nieces and nephews didn’t need to know the horrible details surrounding her civil rights activism, said Rhea McCauley, Parks’ niece.
“They didn’t talk about the lynchings and the Jim Crow laws,” said McCauley, 61, of Orlando, Fla. “They didn’t talk about that stuff to us kids. Everyone wanted to forget about it and sweep it under the rug.”
He said more than 50 of Parks’ relatives traveled to Washington for the ceremony.
In a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus in segregated Montgomery, Ala. She was arrested, touching off a bus boycott that stretched over a year.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Parks had “moved the world when she refused to move her seat.”
Jeanne Theoharis, author of the new biography “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” said Parks was very much a full-fledged civil rights activist, yet her contributions have not been treated like those of other movement leaders, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.