Civil Rights Hero Honored

Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks arrives for a news conference in Detroit, Monday, Feb. 9, 1998 where she was honored with the state setting aside a special day to recognize her.
AP
Hailed by lawmakers as the mother of civil rights, Rosa Parks was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal on June 15, 1999, the highest civilian award given by Congress.

Parks, 86, was lauded by the House and Senate leadership and President Clinton for an act of defiance more than four decades ago, reports CBS News Anchor Dan Rather.

On Dec. 1, 1955, the seamstress, tired after a day's work in Montgomery, Ala., refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated city bus and was arrested for her defiance.

Her arrest set off a lengthy bus boycott by thousands of blacks led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then a local minister. The boycott lasted about a year until the Supreme Court declared Montgomery's bus segregation law unconstitutional.

"She is the mother of the civil rights movement," said Rep. Julia Carson, D-Ind., who pushed for the legislation granting the Congressional Gold Medal to Parks, who now lives in Detroit.

"It is a celebration of the life of Rosa Parks, who is receiving the honor while she can still see it," Carson said of Parks, who appeared frail and had to be helped to her feet from her wheelchair, sometimes steadying herself on the arm of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

"I thank God that when your time came, you were not afraid," House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., said at the Capitol Rotunda ceremony. "You had courage, and you sat down for all of America and all of America's freedom."

Congressional lawmakers gave Parks an artist's drawing of the medal, which is not yet finished.

"I thank you," she said in a low, halting voice, adding that she accepted the award for a "free people" and for civil rights.

The gratitude went both ways.

"I thank you for what you have done," President Clinton said. "She sat, anchored to that seat, as Dr. King said, by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the countless aspirations of generations yet unborn," the president said. "Rosa Parks said, 'I didn't get on that bus to get arrested; I got on that bus to go home.'"

Mr. Clinton said he was only 9 years old when Parks refused to stand up. He and his friends "couldn't figure out anything we could do since we couldn't even vote. So we began to sit on the back of the bus when we got on."

Parks' action cost her the seamstress job and prompted harassment and threats to her family. So she moved to Detroit in 1957. She joined the staff of Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1965 and worked there until retiring in 1988.

In 1987, Parks co-founded a nonprofit group, the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to help young people in Detroit.

A guest at Mr. Clinton's State of the Union address in January, Parks has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The legislation awarding her the Congressional Gold Medal was approved by the Senate without dissent April 19. The House voted 424-1 for it the next day.

The only "no" vote was cast by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who said he opposes spending government money on such awards. Paul routinely votes against spending bills he believes are not authorized by the Constitution.

Lawmakers initially used the Congressional Gold Medal to honor military leaders but began using it during the 20th century to recognize excellence in a range of fields. More than 320 medals have been awarded.

The first was given to George Washington in 1776 for "wise and spirited conduct" during the Revolutionary War.

Recent honorees include Frank Sinatra, Mother Teresa and South African President Nelson Mandela.