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Rosa Parks

Location: Washington, DC

ROSA PARKS -- (Senate - October 31, 2005)


Mr. PRYOR. Mr. President, I join Arkansans in mourning the loss of Rosa Parks, known throughout the Nation as the ``Mother of the Freedom Movement.''

As people line up to pay their respects to Mrs. Parks in the Capitol Rotunda today, I cannot help but remember the incredible impact she had on our Nation. Rosa Parks is the first woman to lie in the Capitol Rotunda, which is a testament that her actions are just as significant today as they were in 1955.

Mrs. Parks once remarked that her show of defiance to move to the back of the bus was simply because she was tired of being humiliated, tired of following archaic rules forbidding her from sitting in the front of a public bus or entering public buildings through the front door. But, history will remember Rosa Parks for shaking America's conscience and changing the course of our Nation for the better.

Mrs. Parks' courage to sit down for equal rights ignited others to stand up for theirs.

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., stood up to call for equality and justice for all Americans, inspiring and organizing thousands of activists to stand up with him. Four students in Greensboro, NC, sat in at a Woolworth's lunch counter, standing up for their right to be served.

And, Daisy Bates led the Little Rock Nine to stand up for their right to an equal education. The Little Rock Nine taught America that ``separate'' was not ``equal.'' Nine Black students--Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown Trickey, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Thelma Mothershed Wair and Melba Pattillo Beals--defied hatred and threats to attend the all-White Central High School for a better education.

Of Rosa Parks' battle for equality, Minnijean Brown Trickey said:

I don't think until the bus boycott we had a sense of our power. ..... The general feeling was if she could do it, we could do it. She was really a heroine to us. She was an ordinary woman and we were ordinary kids and it seems we had a relationship.

As a former student of Central High, I can attest to the influence Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine continue to have in the hallways today.

We know that Rosa Parks' inspiring story lives on in the pages of every history textbook across America. Her legacy also endures at the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which she founded in Detroit. The center offers career training and encourages teens to stay in school and take advantage of the opportunities available to them.

I am just one of millions of Americans who admired Rosa Parks' tenacity and life's work. She earned countless accolades and awards for her efforts in the civil rights movement, including the Congressional Gold Medal Award--the Nation's highest civilian honor. In honoring Mrs. Parks with the Medal of Freedom, President Clinton reminded us that:

Freedom's work is never done. There are still people who are discriminated against. There are still people that because of their human condition are looked down on, derided, degraded, demeaned, and we should all remember the powerful example of this one citizen. And those of us with greater authority and power should attempt every day, in every way, to follow her lead.

Although Rosa Parks served as a catalyst to get the wheels turning in the civil rights movement, our journey is not completed. We can honor her memory by continuing her work to stand up for equality and justice for all Americans.

Still, this was the reality of more than 100 years of history. Change was not favored. It had been and would be resisted.

Of course, while the South was open and notorious about its segregation policies, research in recent years has shown that there were places all over this great land that secretly or overtly discriminated against those of African decent. But in the South, discrimination was not only openly acknowledged; it was the law of the land. The fact was that in Montgomery, AL, on December 1, 1955, it was the law of the city of Montgomery that ``colored'' persons on city buses must sit in the back. As one who loves and admires his home state and her people--I believe there are none finer--this is painful to acknowledge, but facing the painful truth is essential for reconciliation and progress.

So, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, refused to go to the back of the bus--a city bus--in violation of city law. And it sparked, and sparked is the right word, a nationwide confrontation--a confrontation between our American ideals, and our religious concepts, and the grim reality of that day.

Southerners were angry, embarrassed, resistant, introspective, hostile, and pained. They watched, much like I did in Hybart, the drama unfold and they were forced to deal with an ugly reality they would rather have ignored.

Rosa Parks' gumption resulted in a 382 day boycott of the city bus system let by a young 26-year-old preacher, new to town, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a block from the Capitol--A Capitol building proudly known as the First Capital of the Confederacy. That young preacher, of course, was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And, there was a young attorney, Mr. Fred Gray, who had come back to Alabama after receiving his degree from Case Western Reserve University determined to ``become a lawyer, return to Alabama, and destroy everything segregated I could find.'' He would become a legend in his own right, being a part of some of the most historic cases in civil rights and American history. The young Federal trial Judge, an Eisenhower appointee, Judge Frank M. Johnson, would become perhaps the most courageous, clear, and authoritative judicial voice for equal justice in America. And, the lawyer who argued the case for Rosa Parks in the U.S. Supreme Court--Thurgood Marshall--who would later sit on that very court.

The very words, ``the back of the bus'' went to the heart of the problem. Separate was not equal; it was not fair; it was discriminatory against a class of Americans solely because of the color of their skin. I knew Judge Frank Johnson. He was courageous and followed the law. He did not believe he was an activist. He did not believe he was amending the constitution. Judge Johnson believed he was simply being faithful to the plain words of the constitution--words that guaranteed everyone ``equal protection of the laws.'' Sending someone to the back of the bus because of the color of their skin violated that principle he ruled, and the Supreme Court agreed.

This simple act by a courageous woman, a seamstress, but one who was well aware of the danger she faced, at 42-years of age, sparked the civil rights movement and justly earned her the title ``Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.''

Today, in Montgomery, AL, there exists a museum--part of Troy State University--that sits on the spot where she was arrested. It has a school bus, like the one she rode that day, which has interactive capabilities so that children can sit in it and get a better feel for the events of the day. It has more exhibits, and I commend this fine, historical museum to any who would want to learn more of Rosa Parks and the movement she sparked. I was pleased to sponsor legislation that this Congress passed to provide funds to help establish the museum.

While there are many problems between the races today, the de jure, the statutes and ordinances that enforced segregation are gone. And, I am proud that the people of Montgomery have come to see the positive benefits of ending discrimination and that they have chosen to honor Mrs. Parks in this way.

Everyone knows, virtually everyone, that as a result of the movement she sparked, today's Montgomery is a different and better place. Today we also look with pride on the historic Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, that once heard the powerful sermons of a young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we look with respect on the Civil Rights Memorial--a striking monument of black granite and cascading water--which honors those who gave their lives in the pursuit of equal justice.

Thus, it is true: Ms. Parks' efforts helped spark the dynamic social changes that have made it possible for positive and historical change for Montgomery, Alabama, and America. But, in fact, Ms. Parks' contributions extend beyond even the borders of our Nation. In his book Bus Ride to Justice, Mr. Fred Gray, who gained fame while in his 20's as Ms. Parks' attorney, and as one of the early African-American attorneys in Alabama--he was a lead attorney in many of Alabama's other famous civil rights cases--wrote--and I do not believe it is an exaggeration--these words:

Little did we know that we had set in motion a force that would ripple though Alabama, the South, and the Nation, and even the world. But from the vantage point of almost 40 years later, there is a direct correlation between what we started in Montgomery and what has subsequently happened in China, eastern Europe, South Africa and, even more recently, in Russia. While it is inaccurate to say that we all sat down and deliberately planned a movement that would echo and reverberate around the world, we did work around the clock, planning strategy and creating an atmosphere that gave strength, courage, faith and hope to people of all races, creeds, colors and religions around the world. And it all started on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, with Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955.

For her courage, for her role in changing Alabama, the South, the Nation, and the world for the better, our Nation owes a great debt of thanks to Rosa Parks. Placing her body in our Capitol's Rotunda, lying in honor, the first woman who has ever been so honored, is a fitting recognition of her towering achievement.

And, as I conclude, I think it is important to note the recent death of another Alabamian who played a key role in the early civil rights movement in America--Vivian Malone--who crossed the school house door into the University of Alabama.

We must also celebrate that very special event that occurred two weekends ago when another native Alabamian, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, returned to Alabama, visited her family's church and unveiled the statue of the four little girls, one of whom she knew and played with, who were killed in a bomb attack at the 16th Street Baptist Church. It was also good, earlier today, to stand and discuss Rosa Parks' life with Alabama native and U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who, inspired by Rosa Parks, began a lifetime of leadership in the civil rights movement culminating in his election to Congress. Alabama has the highest number of African-American elected officials of any State in the country. We are proud of that. Progress has certainly been made but we must work harder to ease divisions and tensions and promote progress. Let us so pledge on this historic day. Let us allow the steadfastness and peacefulness of Rosa Parks' life, which started the civil rights movement on the basis of faith and morality, not violence, to be our guide in this century as we seek to further the gains she championed.

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