President Obama at the unveiling of the Rosa Parks Statue in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol (image by Brendan/Smialowski/AFP/Getty)
President Obama said Wednesday that Rosa Parks' example in 1955 -- confronting segregation by refusing to give up her seat on a city bus -- should inspire all Americans to face up to today's challenges.
All too often, faced with children who are hungry, neighborhoods "ravaged by violence" and families hobbled by unemployment or illness, Obama said, too many people simply throw up their hands and say there's nothing they can do.
"Rosa Parks tells us there's always something we can do," Obama said during a ceremony to unveil a statue of Parks at the U.S. Capitol.
"She tells us that we all have responsibilities, to ourselves and to one another."
Obama and congressional leaders retold Parks' story, of how she refused to the demands of a white bus driver in Montgomery, Ala., to give up her seat to a white passenger on Dec. 1, 1955. Obama said that "singular act of disobedience launched a movement" that lasts to this day.
Drawing a picture of Parks at the time of her arrest -- "alone in that seat, clutching her purse, staring out the window" -- Obama said, "that moment tells us about how change happens or doesn't happen -- the choices we make or don't make."
Today, Parks' bus sits in the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit, where thousands of visitors board it and remember - including, in 2012, President Obama.
She has now become the first African-American woman to be honored with a full-length statue in the Capitol's Statuary Hall, joining past presidents, members of Congress, military leaders -- and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
In the short term, Parks' arrest six decades ago inspired a boycott that led to integration of Montgomery's buses, led in part by a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. Obama said, "with that victory, the entire edifice of segregation, like the ancient walls of Jericho, began to slowly come tumbling down."
In the long run, Parks' courage inspired countless others to sit in, march, or otherwise battle discrimination, paving the way for nation-altering legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- and, ultimately, the election of an African-American president.
"It's because of these men and women that I stand here today," Obama said.
"in a single moment, with the simplest of gestures," Obama also said, "she helped change America -- and change the world." (Nelson Mandela, a former prisoner who rose to become president of South Africa, once called the 1989 incident in which a man in China stood in front of a government tank a "Rosa Parks moment.")
Obama also pointed out that Parks, who died in 2005 and whose 100th birthday would have been Feb. 4, did much more than a bus protest. Throughout her long life, Parks worked on issues ranging from poverty to discrimination in the legal system to voting rights -- the latter another newsworthy topic in Washington on Wednesday.
Across the street from the Capitol, the Supreme Court held a hearing on a law that Parks partly inspired and which made Obama's political career possible, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In a 3-year-old case -- also from Alabama -- the high court is being asked to throw out Section 5, the steel spine of the Voting Rights Act. It forces nine states with a history of racial discrimination -- Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia -- and municipalities in seven others to get federal approval for any changes in voting procedures.
Obama did not mention the Supreme Court case, focusing instead on Parks' life and legacy.
"This morning, we celebrate a seamstress -- slight in stature but mighty in courage," Obama said "She defied the odds, and she defied injustice."