WASHINGTON (AP) – Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was remembered Monday as a courageous woman whose defiance in the face of segregation helped inspire the architects of the civil rights movement and set an example for generations to follow.
An overflow crowd of mourners joined official Washington to pay tribute to the woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus helped galvanize the modern civil rights movement.
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who was born in Mississippi during segregation, said Parks’ stand “changed the trajectory of my life and the lives of so many other people in the world.”
“I would not be standing here today, nor standing where I stand every day, had she not chosen to sit down,” Winfrey said. “I know that.”
Bishop Adam Jefferson Richardson of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church said, “we are here not because Rosa Parks died but because she lived graciously, effectively and purposely, touching the lives of millions.”
Richardson called Parks a “woman of quiet strength” who was “noble without pretense, regal in her simplicity, courageous without being bombastic.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Parks’ refusal to give up her seat “was the functional equivalent of a nonviolent shot heard round the world.”
“She saw the inherent evil in segregation and she had the courage to fight it in its common place, a seat on a bus,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
Parks’ life was celebrated at the church, where several hundred people were listening to tributes by Winfrey, NAACP chairman Julian Bond, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., for whom Parks worked in his Detroit congressional office for more than two decades.
Conyers recalled that when former South African President Nelson Mandela visited Detroit in 1990, he led the crowd in a chant of Rosa Parks’ name, “which made us realize that this is an international phenomenon that we celebrate. Rosa Parks is worldwide.”
In attendance was Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean.
A painting of the elderly Parks rested above her mahogany coffin at the center of the altar, which was lined with flower arrangements. A large wooden crucifix loomed over the choir, which led the crowd in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Earlier, more than 30,000 people filed silently by her casket in the Capitol Rotunda in hushed reverence, beginning Sunday night and continuing until well pas sunrise Monday.
Frist accompanied new Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito and his family to the Rotunda, where they paused in silent remembrance. Several senators joined the procession.
Elderly women carrying purses, young couples holding hands and small children in the arms of their parents reverently proceeded around the raised wooden casket. A Capitol Police spokeswoman, Sgt. Jessica Gissubel, said more than 30,000 passed through the Rotunda since Sunday evening, when the viewing began.
“I rejoice that my country recognizes that this woman changed the course of American history, that this woman became a cure for the cancer of segregation,” said the Rev. Vernon Shannon, 68, pastor of John Wesley African-Methodist-Episcopal Zion in Washington, one of many who rose before dawn to see the casket.
Many were overcome by emotion. Monica Grady, 47, of Greenbelt, Md., was moved to tears, she said, that Parks was “so brave at the time without really knowing the consequences” of her actions.
Bathed in a spotlight, Parks’ casket stood in the center of a Rotunda that includes a bronze bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system that helped initiate the modern civil rights movement.
In preparation for a memorial service, her casket was taken down the steps of the East Capitol by a military honor guard of pallbearers, followed by her family. A vintage Metropolitan bus dressed in black bunting followed the hearse, along with other city buses.
Parks, a former seamstress, became the first woman to lie in honor in the Rotunda, sharing the tribute bestowed upon Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and other national leaders.
Parks, who died last Monday at 92, was arrested in 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, an incident that inspired King and helped touch off the civil rights movement.
President Bush, who presented a wreath Sunday night at a Capitol Hill ceremony, ordered the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff over all public buildings Wednesday, the day of Parks’ funeral and burial in Detroit.