By Emily Goodin - 02/27/13 11:31 PM EST
Rosa Parks became the first African-American woman to receive a statue in the Capitol on Wednesday, in a ceremony where she was honored for her courage as a civil rights leader.
President Obama joined the congressional leadership in unveiling the statue, which features Parks sitting, clutching her purse, much as she did in the bus protest that made her famous.
He added that “we make excuses for inaction, and we say to ourselves, that’s not my responsibility, there’s nothing I can do. Rosa Parks tells us there’s always something we can do.”
The ceremony took placed in a packed Statuary Hall. A variety of lawmakers — including most of the Congressional Black Caucus and the party leadership — attended, as did prominent African-Americans like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Attorney General Eric Holder.
Afterward, they all rushed to the statue to take photos.
During the hour-long ceremony, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) spoke of Parks’s ties to Congress. The civil rights icon worked in Rep. John Conyers’s (D-Mich.) Detroit office for years and, upon her death in 2005, she was the first woman to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda.
Pelosi noted Parks worked on Conyers’s first congressional campaign and became his first congressional hire.
“Conyers found out that people were visiting his office to see Rosa Parks and not the congressman,” Pelosi said, noting she and other lawmakers had always asked Conyers for stories about Parks.
She pointed out that Parks was invited all over the country for a variety of honors.
“One day she went to [Conyers] and she said she wanted to thank him for allowing her to be honored all over the country and would be willing to take a pay cut for her time away from the office.”
Most speakers spoke of what she meant to the nation.
“On an otherwise ordinary evening in Montgomery, she did the extraordinary by simply staying put. And, in the process, she helped all of us discover something about ourselves, and about the great regenerative capacity of America. We have had the humility as a nation to recognize past mistakes, and we have had the strength to confront those mistakes. But it has always required people like Rosa Parks to help get us there,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.
The unveiling took place about three weeks after the 100th anniversary of Parks’s birth.
It came on a day the Supreme Court was hearing arguments about the Voting Rights Act and as Congress is dealing with the upcoming mandatory budget cuts known as the sequester.
“How ironic that on the same day we honor Mrs. Parks in our nation’s Capital, right across the street the United States Supreme Court hears arguments on whether or not Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is still relevant and necessary. This is the very core of the cause to which Mrs. Parks devoted her life and it is once again being questioned,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) said in a statement.
Parks’s image, tucked in a corner of Statuary Hall and surrounded by the likeness of famous Americans, is cast in bronze. The statue and its black granite pedestal are nearly nine feet tall and weigh approximately 2,700 pounds. It stands next to a statue of Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy.
The statue arrived at the Capitol on Friday, but its journey has been years in the making.
It was authorized by a special act of Congress in 2005; the commission process resulted in the selection of an artist in November 2009, and it was unveiled almost four years later.
Statuary Hall is ordinarily reserved for full-size statues from the states; each state sends two statues of its choosing to be put on display.
Parks’s likeness is the first commission of a full-sized statue approved and funded by the Congress since 1873.
It was created by San Pedro, Calif., artist Eugene Daub, who has also done commissions for statues of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
“The biggest thrill for me is to know that so many people will be seeing it,” he told The Hill on Tuesday, the evening before the dedication. “It’s in a place where it is hallowed ground for sculptures. And just to get one piece in the nation’s Capital it’s such a thrill and honor. It’s amazing.”
Both he and his partner, Rob Firmin, who does most of the historical research for the commissions, attended the ceremony and met with Obama.
“I’m not only nervous, I’m mildly terrified,” Daub said of the meeting. “What can I possibly say to the leader of the free world?”
But he added: “I actually have been making clippings of photographs of his head for years because I think he has such an interesting head. I don’t know if I dare say that to him or not.”
Also in attendance was Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.). Daub resides in her district.
“It’s such an honor,” she said, to have him create the statue, adding that her district, which is home to many African-Americans, is also known for its artists.
“San Pedro is an artist community. It’s known for being an artist community and a lot of what happens is centered around our artists,” Hahn told The Hill.
Parks was born on Feb. 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Ala., and died on Oct. 24, 2005, in Detroit.
She came to national attention in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, sparking the Montgomery bus strike, which led to the city repealing its law requiring segregation on public buses.
Her ensuing fame made her a symbol of the civil rights movement. She eventually moved to Detroit and, in 1965, went to work for Conyers.
During her lifetime she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama spoke at her funeral, as did former President Clinton and other dignitaries.
On Dec. 1, 2005, President George W. Bush signed into law legislation directing Congress to obtain a statue of Parks and provide for its placement in the Capitol.
A national competition managed by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Architect of the Capitol selected Daub to sculpt the statue.