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
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
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
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
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.