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Civil Rights Pioneer Rosa Parks Lies in Honor in Capitol Rotunda

StoryOctober 31, 2005
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The body of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was flown to Washingon DC Sunday night to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. She is the first woman and second African American to lie in state. We speak with the Rev. Joseph and author Diane McWhorter and we go back to 1956 to air a rare interview with Parks aired on Pacifica Radio’s KPFA. [includes rush transcript]

Today, the body of civil rights pioneer, Rosa Parks lies in honor in the Captiol Rotunda in Washington D.C. She is the first woman and only the second African-American to receive the honor, usually reserved for Presidents, soldiers and politicians. Last Monday, Parks died at the age of 92 at her home in Detroit, Michigan. It was 50 years ago this December that Parks refused to relinquish her seat to a white man aboard a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested and convicted of violating the state’s segregation laws. Her act of resistance led to a 13-month boycott of the Montgomery bus system that would spark the civil rights movement and inspire freedom struggles all over the world. The bus boycott would also help transform a 26-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King Junior to national prominence.

This past weekend, thousands were in Montgomery, Alabama for Parks’ memorial service. On Saturday, mourners streamed past her open coffin to pay their last respects. On Sunday a service was held at St. Paul AME church where Parks was a member at the time of her arrest. Speakers included Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

  • Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State, speaking October 30, 2005 in Washington DC.
  • Rev. Al Sharpton, October 30, 2005 in Washington DC.

Last night, Rosa Parks’ body was flown to Washington D.C where it lies in state at the Capitol Rotunda. Public viewing will take place today in the Rotunda and a memorial service will be held for Rosa Parks in D.C at the Metropolitan AME Church. Her funeral will take place on Wednesday in Detroit, Michigan.

  • Rosa Parks, interviewed in April 1956 by Pacifica radio station KPFA. The interview comes from the “”:In Pacifica Radio Archives.
  • Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution” which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize and a young-adult history of the Movement, “A Dream of Freedom”
  • Rev. Joseph Lowery, preacher and co-founder of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and chair of Coalition of Peoples Agenda.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the speakers was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Her singular act of courage and defiance set off a revolution in this country that eventually made America face up to its birth defect and face up to the hard work that it still had ahead of it. I think I can quite honestly say that without Mrs. Parks, I would probably not be standing here today as Secretary of State.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. This is Reverend Al Sharpton.

REV. AL SHARPTON: We’re not there yet. Let’s not act like this is some memory of when we had problems. We still have problems. We are still doubly unemployed. We still have a nation that has health care for some and not others. We still have disparity in the criminal justice system. We still have a government that can gear up quicker to go abroad for weapons that are not there than a hurricane down south that is there. We still got work to do, and Miss Parks, we’re committed to continue the work. We will not disgrace the fact that you wouldn’t move, because you wouldn’t move, we won’t move. And we won’t be flattered into forgetting what you did, and we won’t be forgetful of what you expect out of us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Reverend Al Sharpton, speaking in Montgomery, Alabama, at the memorial service of civil rights pioneer, Rosa Parks. Last night, her body was flown to Washington, D.C., where it now lies in honor at the Capitol Rotunda, public viewing taking place last night and today. Thousands of people have lined up to pay last respects. We’re going to turn now for just a moment to an excerpt of an interview done with Rosa Parks in April of 1956 by Pacifica Radio. We pulled this from the Pacifica Radio Archives, Rosa Parks describing her action, December of 1955.

ROSA PARKS: I left work on my way home, December 1, 1955, about 6:00 in the afternoon. I boarded the bus downtown Montgomery on Court Square. As the bus proceeded out of town on the third stop, the white passengers had filled the front of the bus. When I got on the bus, the rear was filled with colored passengers, and they were beginning to stand. The seat I occupied was the first of the seats where the Negro passengers take as they — on this route. The driver noted that the front of the bus was filled with white passengers, and there would be two or three men standing. He looked back and asked that the seat where I had taken, along with three other persons: one in a seat with me and two across the aisle were seated. He demanded the seats that we were occupying. The other passengers there reluctantly gave up their seats. But I refused to do so.

I want to make very certain that it is understood that I had not taken a seat in the white section, as has been reported in many cases. An article came out in the newspaper on Friday morning about the Negro woman overlooked segregation. She was seated in the front seat, the white section of the bus and refused to take a seat in the rear of the bus. That was the first newspaper account. The seat where I occupied, we were in the custom of taking this seat on the way home, even though at times on this same bus route, we occupied the same seat with whites standing, if their space had been taken up, the seats had been taken up. I was very much surprised that the driver at this point demanded that I remove myself from the seat.

The driver said that if I refused to leave the seat, he would have to call the police. And I told him, “Just call the police.” He then called the officers of the law. They came and placed me under arrest, violation of the segregation law of the city and state of Alabama in transportation. I didn’t think I was violating any. I felt that I was not being treated right, and that I had a right to retain the seat that I had taken as a passenger on the bus. The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. They placed me under arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Rosa Parks, speaking in April 1956 in the midst of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She had refused to stand up for a white passenger just a few months before, December 1, 1955. We’re joined in our New York studio by Diane McWhorter, author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama and the Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. She won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction for this book. We’re also joined on the telephone by long-time civil rights activist, Reverend Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, involved in the 1950s, even before Rosa Parks refused to stand up, in desegregating the South, particularly transportation, and was this weekend in Montgomery, Alabama, for the service, the memorial service for Rosa Parks. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Reverend Lowery, your memory of Rosa Parks in the 1950s, when you would come up from Mobile to Montgomery to support her in the bus boycott?

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, she was a mild-mannered activist. She was deceptive in her demeanor. You would never expect her to be as — inside as fiery and courageous as she really was, and so when they called me in Mobile and told me she was the person who sparked the boycott, I was surprised and amused and, of course, delighted, because she was a wonderful woman who did not act as a soloist. While she was alone on the bus, she was part of a movement. She was active in the NAACP, and long before she refused to give up her seat on the bus, she engaged in voter registration drives, in helping young people understand the struggle, and even after the boycott, she continued to work in the movement. So, she was part of an organized effort to change America and to — as a seamstress, not only a seamstress on clothes, but a seamstress on the fabric of American democracy. It needed mending, and she was the person God chose to do it at this moment in history.

AMY GOODMAN: Diane McWhorter, you’re a white woman who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Birmingham, and you wrote about this whole experience in Carry Me Home. Your response to Rosa Parks, a woman you have met?

DIANE McWHORTER: You know, I grew up thinking that she was this sweet little, simple old woman who had spontaneously decided to not get up because her feet were tired. And that’s kind of the legend that’s come down. As Rev. Lowery just said, that was far from the truth. I think that both she and Dr. King are kind of — there’s Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial and then Rosa Parks on the bus. And that’s kind of how the Civil Rights Movement has been passed on in legend. And the great thing about it is that, you know, the more you get into it, the more you realize how thrilling all of the various dimensions are and how — Martin Luther King has said that the zeitgeist had tracked Rosa Parks down, and in fact, it was — her action was sort of the culmination of a whole lot of things that had been going on before then.

AMY GOODMAN: You feared your father was a member of the Klan in the 1960s?


AMY GOODMAN: What did that mean for you, on the one hand being inspired by Rosa Parks, on the other hand living in your family?

DIANE McWHORTER: Well, I can’t say that at the time I was inspired by Rosa Parks. I was only, what, two years old when she sat down, but I think that — to tell you the truth, the thing that upset me most about my father was that I was afraid that he was going to embarrass my family, that he was going to do something illegal. And I think that my fear of that sort of got me thinking about this in a way that my peers did not. But I can’t say that I had any kind of sort of moral conversion because of that at the time. That came later.

AMY GOODMAN: What sparked later?

DIANE McWHORTER: Later — well, you know, to tell you the truth, it’s because I went to college during the counter-culture, and then it would have been very unseemly to carry those attitudes, you know, up to the North to college with me, and it was during — and I became more of the anti-Vietnam War protest group generation, and then the civil rights consciousness followed that.

One thing I always tell people, though, is that the scariest thing about segregation was that — because now we look back on it, and we can’t believe that had gone on in this country — but it seemed normal to people who lived under it. And it seemed normal to white people, and it seemed normal to African Americans, which is why Rosa Parks’s action was so radical, in a way, because people accepted it. And whites and blacks did. So, you know, so that’s, in a way, the scariest thing about the whole thing, that it was normal.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Lowery, there will be a memorial service in Washington, D.C. today. You were at the memorial service in Montgomery. We only have a few seconds, but what was it like? Thousands turned out.

REV. JOSEPH LOWERY: Well, it was a great tribute to — not only to Rosa Parks, but to the movement. I couldn’t hardly hear what the distinguished author was saying, but I thought I heard her say that it was accepted by black people, the patterns, and it may have appeared that way, but black people never were comfortable under segregation, and the fact that Mrs. Parks, an ordinary citizen, an ordinary person, expressed that resentment and that non-acceptance is a part of history, but we were always uncomfortable with segregation, because we knew that God did not intend for any of his children to be humiliated, ostracized or set aside.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Joseph Lowery, we’ll have to leave it there. I want to thank you for being with us and Diane McWhorter for being with us, author of Carry Me Home.

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