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 comply with the demands of a white bus driver in Montgomery, Ala., to give up her seat to a white passenger. 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."
Parks is the first African-American woman to be honored with a full-length statue in the Capitol's National 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 fight 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, 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.")
Parks, who died in 2005, did more than a bus protest, Obama said. All her life, she worked on issues ranging from poverty to discrimination in the legal system to voting rights. The crowd at the statue unveiling included more than 50 of her relatives.
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