Monday, October 31, 2005

Rosa Parks

Some mornings when I sit down with the paper, there is news that makes me cry a little bit. That’s what happened last week when I read that Rosa Parks had died. I read the articles, thinking about all I had learned about her as a child, and then as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate course on the civil rights movement. I thought about writing something about her and what she means to me—something about the power of individuals to make a difference, about the importance of standing up (or sitting down) for one’s beliefs, about what finally drives people to act against injustice.

But the main memory that kept coming back to me was sparked by the mention of E.D. Nixon, a leader of the NAACP in Alabama, who Rosa Parks had called after her arrest, and who helped organize the bus boycotts in Montgomery. His name had been on the list of people and events that students in the class I was a TA for had to identify on the final exam. While I didn’t do any statistical analysis, I think that was the one that my students got wrong the most. But they didn’t decide to leave that one blank, but took a guess. Most wrote that he was the president who resigned after the Watergate scandal. Did they not know what President Nixon’s first name was? Did they not know how to spell Richard? I suppose they were just taking a guess, hoping for the best. There was one answer that really stood out to me, though, something to the effect of:

“E.D. Nixon was the governor of California when the Black Panthers stormed the state Capitol with automatic weapons. He later became President of the United States, but was forced to resign because of Watergate.”

Fabulous: mix up a couple of people irrelevant to the question, bring in and exaggerate an event that had nothing to do with the man you are identifying, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. I called up the other TA and read her the answer. (That’s right, when you said silly things in your papers and exams in college, your TAs were sharing and laughing at you.)

Because that was all I could think to write, I didn’t write anything.

As soon as we read that Rosa Parks would lie in state in the Capitol rotunda, The Husband and I decided that we had to go.

We arrived at the Capitol South Metro station a little after 5, and followed groups of people out toward the Capitol building. I had read that the funeral procession would arrive at 5:30, and that the viewing would begin at 6:30. We approached a guard and were directed down to 3rd Street. We cut in at 1st Street, along with everyone else, thinking we had found the end of the line. Then we followed that line all past the reflecting pool, down onto 3rd, and then saw it wrap back around the other side of the pool. We felt triumphant as we settled in at the end of the line to wait. The line was moving, but we realized quickly that we were moving because they were setting up lines to snake people back and forth, and we were filling in that space.

Soon we were back on 3rd Street, and were only shuffling along in the line. It was chilly, but not too cold. The blue of the sky behind the Capitol was deepening, while in the opposite direction the sky behind the Washington Monument was lit with pale gold, although the sun had already sunk below the horizon. I studied the Capitol dome, glowing bright white against the darkening sky. I remembered the first time I’d visited Washington, three and a half years ago. We took a shuttle from BWI to the home of some friends who live in Alexandria. The driver was chatty, and tried to engage all his passengers in conversation—I remember him asking a van full of strangers who they believed was at fault for the problems in Israel. After dropping off a few passengers in the District, the shuttle turned a corner, and I saw the Capitol dome lit up against the sky. My excitement made the driver realize I had never been in Washington before, and he was excited to show me more. To what I’m sure was the dismay of an older couple who just wanted to get to their hotel, the driver took a route that would give us a view of the White House, before getting lost on our way to our friends’ house. But more than the White House, I remember that first glimpse of the Capitol. I remember my awe at seeing the dome all lit up at night for the first time, and it still impresses me. I like to say that when I get tired of seeing the dome at night, it will be time for me to leave Washington. I spent a lot of time looking at it last night, and I don’t think I’m tired of it yet.

People became friendly in the line, striking up conversations with strangers. A group of people somewhere behind us spent some time singing—“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Jesus Loves Me,” “The Star Spangled Banner.” A little boy behind us, probably about three years old, was a bundle of energy running up ahead to give high fives to a man a few yards ahead of us whom I’m sure he didn’t know, then back to his mom, over and over again. I had brought a book, but even with the lights along the lawns, it was difficult to focus enough to read.

We wondered what was going on, and The Husband suggested I call our friend Jeff, and ask him to check on the Web or on television to see if there was any news of what was happening. It was nearing seven and the line was no longer moving very much. My feet and calves were starting to ache. Eventually, I decided to call Jeff, but didn’t get an answer. I thought about trying to call someone else, but finally, a little after seven, we saw the flashing lights of the motorcade approaching along 3rd Street. Cheers went up throughout the crowd as buses rolled by—first the empty 1957 bus, then several full Metro buses full of Mrs. Parks’ family and friends. I stood on tiptoe, trying to peer over the top of the crowd, and saw people waving in the buses.

After they had passed, I turned to The Husband. “You know, given my experiences taking Metro bus on my commute, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that they’re late getting here.”

Still, the line didn’t move. A woman in front of us called her father in New Hampshire and asked him to turn on the television. From him, we found out that the casket was being carried in to the Capitol by an honor guard, and that Bush and some congressmen were there for a ceremony. We were told that the cameras were turned off in the rotunda for a prayer. The woman’s father said he would call back if there was any more information.

Our line crossed over onto another lawn. We felt that we were making progress. The singing groups started up again, this time with “Joy to the World.” At last we could see people moving up onto the steps of the Capitol.

At 9:45 we were out of the line that snaked back and forth. Someone asked the guard who was letting us out how much longer she thought we would have, and she speculated it was an hour. I wanted to believe her, but I thought she was probably just making up an answer. As we followed the edge of the reflecting pool closer to the security point, we realized how chilly it was. We were exposed to the breeze now, and didn’t have a crowd around us to help keep us warm. In exchange for losing our warmth, though, there were occasional benches and curbs to sit down to rest our feet. After five hours of standing, it was nice to give my legs even a quick break.

Moving up hill towards the security checkpoint, I heard the little boy behind us, now in his stroller, say, “Mommy, are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m okay. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. Mommy? What are you doing?”

“Freezing!” People around us laughed. It was an hour since we’d been told that we had an hour left to go. Another guard told us it would be another forty minutes, and assured us that Metro was staying open until one.

Twenty minutes later, just past 11:00, after going through the metal detectors, we climbed up the steps and walked around to the west of the Capitol, looking down towards the lines that we had been in all evening. We couldn’t see the end of the line, but we could tell it was even further away than when we’d first started. We walked slowly looking out over the Mall. The Washington Monument towered beyond the lines of people, and just beyond that, I could see the arches of the World War II Memorial. At the end of Mall, the Lincoln Memorial was also lit up, and I thought of Martin Luther King giving his speech there more than 40 years ago. I thought about him suddenly being asked to take a leading role in the boycotts after Rosa Parks’ arrest only a few years before that. I wondered if he would ever have imagined her receiving this honor.

We were no longer behind the people we had been waiting in line with. Instead we followed a couple and their son up the steps. The boy was a miniature version of his father, formally dressed in a suit, a long overcoat, and a hat. The men were asked to remove their hats has we entered the building, and everyone lowered their voices.

As we entered the rotunda there were ropes guiding people in a circle, and as we passed a guard, I at last saw the deep shine of the small casket. We paused as we reached the far side of the casket. I watched more people file in. In whispers, people thanked Rosa Parks as they made their way around; some were crying; a woman crossed herself. I remembered to look up into the dome just as we left. As we moved back down the marble steps, I realized that I hadn’t noticed any of the paintings or statues. The small casket had been the only focus.

We emerged from the Capitol and made our way slowly down the steps, looking out over the crowds of people and the view of the Mall once more. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we quickened our pace and headed home, wondering at the number of people that remained. The line stretched far beyond where we had joined it six hours before, looping around corners, and we couldn’t tell where it ended.

I am glad I went. I am pleased that Rosa Parks was honored in such a formal way. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to pay my respects to an important woman. I am moved by the murmurs of thanks from people of all different backgrounds. But I think the most important part of the evening was the wait in line. My feet hurt and my legs ached after six hours of shuffling through a line. But it was important to see the crowds that turned out, to feel that I was a part of something, to understand how much one woman symbolized to so many people.


Cerulean Blue said...

thanks for this! I got chills reading! I just find irony, albeit beautiful, that your legs and feet ached, as I am sure hers did that day she became triumphant. Thank You! and God Bless Her!

ann said...

Beautiful. It made me cry, just a little. In a good way.

Christie Grabyan said...

In the end, how many people turned out that night?

Elizabeth said...

I read that Capitol police estimated that more than 30,000 people turned out that night and the next morning.