African-American civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, who recently died at age 92, will be honored in a formal, public ceremony in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. The Congress passed a resolution late this week to pay her tribute in a manner traditionally accorded deceased heads of state.
A closed casket bearing the body of Rosa Parks will be placed on a platform for public viewing inside the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building. U.S. Senate historian Richard Baker says Rosa Parks is the first private citizen in the United States to be accorded the honor. "The first woman and the first civilian - those are pretty major distinctions [honors]. It is certainly the highest honor that Congress can bestow on any person to have that person lie in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol.
Rosa Parks is the second African American and the third American who wasn't a head of state to receive the posthumous tribute. Traditionally, U.S. presidents and other top public officials -- leaders like Abraham Lincoln in 1865, John Kennedy in 1963, and Ronald Reagan last year -- have been accorded the honor of a formal, public mourning ceremony under the dome of the U.S. Capitol. The ceremony known as laying in state describes the official tradition of placing the body of a deceased public figure in the Rotunda for public viewing before funeral and burial.
Rosa Parks, known as the Mother of the American Civil Rights Movement, was a seamstress by profession, who - on her way home from work one day in 1955 - refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She was arrested, tried and convicted of disorderly conduct. Shortly after the incident, black civil rights leaders - including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. - organized a boycott of the Montgomery public bus system. Many African Americans in the city walked, took taxis, or carpooled, leaving many of the buses unused. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on public buses. Rosa Parks inspired many other ordinary citizens to take part in protests and a large civil rights movement was organized in order to end racial segregation.
Senate historian Richard Baker says "she was a brave, brave woman. She stood up and sat down at a moment in American history, when very few other people thought that was appropriate or had the courage to do it - in 1955. She said, 'Why should I be a second-class citizen? I'm an American, and that's all that should really matter. I'm willing to take the consequences.' And she did. She became a role model for generations that followed. She certainly has to be in the front rank of American heroes."
Senate historian Richard Baker says that the mourning ceremony known as "laying in state" had been restricted to deceased leaders or public figures. For esteemed private citizens like Rosa Parks, the ceremony is called "laying in honor." "There is a distinction, and it was only made recently -- back in 1998, when two Capitol Hill policeman were shot and killed by a deranged gunmen. The question was, 'Should they be treated [in tribute] the same way as former presidents?' At that point, we said, 'We want to honor those gentlemen, those brave men who gave their lives.' So the new category of 'laying in honor' was created. It's not a state funeral. It's not a state function, but it is certainly a high honor, and that's where that came from.
Historian Richard Baker describes the ceremony, saying "There will be some words [said in her honor] and probably a prayer or two, and probably a military color guard of some sort, presumably one or more wreaths. So there will be sort of a decorous atmosphere in this majestic Rotunda."
Mr. Baker says the Rotunda is a fitting place for the ceremony. "With its great, colorful murals depicting early scenes in American history. It's quite an awesome place. You kind of hear the echoes of American history in there. There are a number of statues, including the bust of Martin Luther King. There was some talk at the time of his death [by assassination in 1968] that he might lie in state in the Capitol. It didn't work out that way. But his very imposing bust is permanently stationed in the Capitol Rotunda, so it will be looking over the proceedings that take place with Rosa Parks."
Mr. Baker says the two-day ceremony on Sunday and Monday is expected to give many of the nation's leaders - and the city's large contingent of workers and tourists - ample time to visit the Capitol Rotunda to pay their last respects to Rosa Parks.