October 25, 2005
Mr. President, today the nation mourns a genuine American hero. Rosa Parks died yesterday in her home in Detroit. Through her courage and by her example, Rosa Parks helped lay the foundation for a country that could begin to live up to its creed.
Her life, and her brave actions, reminded each and every one of us of our personal responsibilities to stand up for what is right and the central truth of the American experience that our greatness as a nation derives from seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Rosa Parks' life was a lesson in perseverance. As a child, she grew up listening to the Ku Klux Klan ride by her house and lying in bed at night fearing that her house would be burnt down. In her small hometown in Alabama, she attended a one-room school for African-American children that only went through the sixth grade. When she moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to continue her schooling, she was forced to clean classrooms after school to pay her tuition. Although she attended Alabama State Teachers College, Rosa Parks would later make her living as a seamstress and housekeeper.
But she didn't accept that her opportunities were limited to sewing clothes or cleaning houses. In her forties, Rosa Parks was appointed secretary of the Montgomery branch of the NAACP and was active in voter registration drives with the Montgomery Voters League. In the summer of 1955, she attended the Highlander Folk School, where she took classes in workers' rights and racial equality. Well before she made headlines across the country, she was a highly respected member of the Montgomery community and a committed member of the civil rights effort.
Of course, her name became permanently etched in American history on December 1, 1955, when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus. It wasn't the first time Rosa Parks refused to acquiesce to the Jim Crow system. The same bus driver who had her arrested had thrown her off a bus the year before for refusing to give up her seat.
Some schoolchildren are taught that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat because her feet were tired. Our nation's schoolbooks are only getting it half right. She once said: "The only tired I was, was tired of giving in."
This solitary act of civil disobedience became a call to action. Her arrest led a then relatively unknown pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. That boycott lasted 381 days and culminated in a landmark Supreme Court decision finding that the city's segregation policy was unconstitutional.
This solitary act of civil disobedience was also the spark that ignited the beginning of the end for segregation and inspired millions around the country and ultimately around the world to get involved in the fight for racial equality.
Rosa Parks' persistence and determination did not end that day in Montgomery, nor did it end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act years later. She stayed active in the NAACP and other civil rights groups for years. From 1965 to 1988, Ms. Parks continued her public service by working for my good friend Congressman John Conyers. And in an example of her low-key demeanor, her job in Congressman Conyers' office did not involve appearances as a figurehead or celebrity; she helped homeless folks find housing.
At the age of 74, she opened the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, which offers education and job training programs for disadvantaged youth. And even into her 80s, Rosa Parks gave lectures and attended meetings with civil rights groups.
At the age of 86, Rosa Parks' courage and fortitude was recognized by President Bill Clinton, who awarded her the nation's highest honor for a civilian - the Congressional Gold Medal.
As we honor the life of Rosa Parks, we should not limit our commemorations to lofty eulogies. Instead, let us commit ourselves to carrying on her fight, one solitary act at a time, and ensure that her passion continues to inspire as it did a half-century ago. That, in my view, is how we can best thank her for her immense contributions to our country.
Rosa Parks once said: "As long as there is unemployment, war, crime and all things that go to the infliction of man's inhumanity to man, regardless - there is much to be done, and people need to work together." Now that she's passed, it's up to us to make sure that her message is shared. While we will miss her cherished spirit, let's work to ensure that her legacy lives on in the heart of the nation.
As a personal note, I think it is fair to say were it not for that quiet moment of courage by Mrs. Parks, I would not be standing here today. I owe her a great thanks, as does the Nation. She will be sorely missed.
Thank you. I yield the floor.