Mourning the Loss of Civil Rights Icon Rosa Parks

Mr. Speaker, I rise today to honor the life of Ms. Rosa Parks who died on October 24, 2005 at the age of 92.

In 1955, Rosa Parks was a seamstress, housekeeper and volunteer at the local NAACP chapter in Montgomery, Alabama. One winter evening, the 42-year-old was riding a city bus home after a long day of work. Rather than give up her seat to a white person, she chose to be arrested, setting off a 381-day boycott of the bus system organized by a young Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her simple act of defiance was an important catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement. She was arrested and later found guilty by a local court of violating segregation, but her case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court which overturned the Jim Crow-era laws. 

Many civil rights pioneers would fight against injustice, helping advance genuine equality among citizens. Yet Rosa Parks was unique; a true American icon who embodied the notion that one person can make a difference, that a snowball can turn into an avalanche. She was the anonymous victim of discrimination whose fame quickly spread; a woman of profound inner-strength and deep conviction who selflessly volunteered herself for the greater cause of liberty. Her bravery galvanized thousands to use non-violent means to move Congress to pass landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation. 

Two years ago, I joined a civil rights pilgrimage to Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama. Led by Representative John Lewis and the Faith in Politics Institute, the pilgrimage took Members of the House and Senate to the sites of many of the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. It was an unforgettable experience. All of the Members of Congress felt as I did, how lucky we were to visit these sites: the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Institute and the Rosa Parks Museum, with some of the activists who led the movement. To see these places through their eyes, to hear them describe what it was like when the very church we were sitting in was under siege by an angry mob of segregationists, to witness tears come down their cheeks as they thought of where they had been and where we were standing. 

As we reflected on the moving events of the pilgrimage, the Members of Congress--many like me, too young to remember well the civil rights movement--kept asking ourselves two questions: What would I have done? Would I have been an activist, or, like so many Americans, simply indifferent? And what about today? What is the contemporary relevance of the civil rights movement? 

The more we pondered what we would have done, black or white, had we been born into 1960's Alabama, and the more we asked ourselves about what we could do to advance the civil rights movement today, the more I began to realize that the two questions were really interconnected. 

The best window into what we would have done, the best insight into what might have been, can be gleaned from what we do in the future. While America today provides all of its citizens with more opportunities and better protects those most vulnerable, too many still face vestiges of bigotry. We can look to the Civil Rights Movement to inspire us to build a greater and more just society, but we must learn from the example set by Rosa Parks that each of us must take an affirmative step to ensure that our country remains faithful to the ideals of its founding. If we dedicate ourselves to the cause of racial justice, arm ourselves with an appreciation of history, and commit ourselves to the provision of equal opportunity to all, we will stand on the frontier of the new civil rights movement. And that would be the most fitting pilgrimage of all.