While honoring civil rights hero Rosa Parks, President Bush on Thursday delighted modern-day black leaders by calling on Congress to renew the provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that are set to expire.
On the 50th anniversary of Parks’ refusal to give up to a white man her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, Bush signed into law a bill directing that a statue of Parks go up in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. Parks, who died Oct. 24 at age 92, will be the first black woman to be represented in Statuary Hall, where many states have statues honoring notable people in their history.
Bush credited Parks for helping to “set in motion a national movement for equality and freedom.”
“Eventually the civil rights movement would succeed in persuading Congress to pass more sweeping legislation that dealt with voting rights and discrimination in public places, and school segregation,” said the president. “And the United States Congress should renew the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
For president, a standing ovation
That declaration surprised many of the civil rights leaders, Parks relatives and politicians who had gathered at the White House for the signing ceremony. They erupted in applause and rose to give Bush a standing ovation.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson lavishly praised Bush for committing to seeing the expiring portions of the Voting Rights Act extended. He called the president’s public urging “a significant breakthrough” since he had previously declined even in private to support the renewal.
“That was kind of a double victory for civil rights today,” Jackson said.
The provisions that expire, in 2007, include one requiring states with a history of racial discrimination — mostly in the South — to get federal approval to change their voting laws or district lines and another requiring election officials to provide voting material in the native language of immigrant voters who don’t speak English.
1965 law clarifies earlier law
The 15th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1870, guarantees voting rights for minorities. But the 1965 law clarified and extended those rights.
It was pushed through by President Lyndon Johnson in response to states’ requirements that black voters pass literacy and other tests.
Parks, a former seamstress, became the first woman to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, where the bodies of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and other national leaders have been paid tribute after their deaths. Statuary Hall is next to the Rotunda.
The bill gives the Capitol Architect’s office two years to obtain a statue.
“By refusing to give in, Rosa Parks called America back to its founding promise of equality and justice for everyone,” Bush said. “We hope that generations of Americans will remember what this brave woman did, and be inspired to add their own contributions to the unfolding story of American freedom for all.”
Bush warmly greeted the bill’s sponsors, including Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., and his 2004 opponent for the presidency, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Bush and Kerry repeatedly shook hands and exchanged whispered pleasantries. “Thanks for coming,” Bush could be heard telling his one-time rival.
‘Thank you, Rosa Parks’
Bush's tribute from Capitol Hill was one of several around the country. Hundreds of children marched Thursday from the site in Montgomery, Ala., where Parks made history 50 years ago.
“Thank you, Rosa Parks. Thank you, Rosa Parks,” the children chanted as they marched to the Capitol from the site about eight blocks away where Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955.
Elijah Taylor, 12, said he joined the children’s parade “to give tribute to all those people in Montgomery who walked during the bus boycott” as well as Parks.
“I did it because Rosa Parks stuck up for what was right,” said Megan Hughes, 11.
The children, both black and white, joined arms and sang “We Shall Overcome” at the steps of the Capitol.
Earlier Thursday, Montgomery residents and civil rights figures held a prayer breakfast to remember Parks.
All buses in the city paid tribute to Parks by leaving a seat empty with a display commemorating her act. The Montgomery Improvement Association, which hosted the prayer breakfast, was the group that organized and launched the boycott of city buses four days after Parks’ arrest. The yearlong boycott, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., became a key moment in the civil rights movement.
Other tributes in other cities
Other bus systems around the country had similar displays. In New York, empty seats were marked with posters of her reading, “It All Started on a Bus,” and bus drivers were asked to keep headlights on all day.
In Philadelphia, middle school students planned to write comments about Parks on posters on the outside of a bus that would be put into regular service.
Bus tributes were also set up in Boston; Cleveland; Newark, N.J.; and Washington, D.C.
In Detroit, a federal building on Detroit’s east side was being renamed for Parks in an afternoon ceremony. The resolution renaming the building was signed into law by President Bush on Nov. 11.