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
“E.D. Nixon was the governor of
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 , and that the viewing would begin at . We approached a guard and were directed down to
Soon we were back on
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
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
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 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
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.