DETROIT – Rosa Parks wasn’t a large woman. She wasn’t loud or boisterous. But on Wednesday, the day she was laid to rest after 92 years of life, Parks’ spirit was large enough to fill the sanctuary of one of Detroit’s largest churches.

Her eternal power was forceful enough to bring thousands to their feet. They came from different walks of life, from a former U.S. president to mothers who brought their children to witness history, they came to mourn her death and celebrate the life of the woman whose stillness rocked the world.

In a funeral that lasted more than seven hours, Parks’ life was celebrated with soul-stirring singing, passionate prayers and powerful preaching.

Called a National Victory Celebration, the service was as much a tribute to Parks as a forum for politicians and others to challenge people to renew their commitment to the movement she sparked when she refused to give up her bus seat so a white man could sit down.

The service was a paradox in time, one where people danced in the aisles while others simultaneously cried quietly in their seats. It was a day in which hundreds of dignitaries from around the nation joined with a consortium of everyday Detroiters, those who had waited in line for hours, dressed in their Sunday best, to participate in history.

It was a day to say goodbye.

“The power I feel in this church today is part of the power she left,” said U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat who hired Parks in 1965. She had moved to Detroit in 1957.

At exactly 11 a.m., Parks’ family and close friends began to file into Greater Grace Temple on Detroit’s west side, stopping at the casket, two at a time, to say goodbye. As the choir sang songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” “Praise Him” and “Great is Your Grace,” thousands stood in the sanctuary for an hour, clapping, singing and swaying to the music.

Parks took her courageous stand against segregation on Dec. 1, 1955. On Wednesday, a clear sign that times have changed, Bishop Charles Ellis III had to remind those in the church to turn off their cell phones, warning that phones are not allowed in the Capitol, in the White House or in the courthouse. “And there is no greater or higher house than God’s house,” he said.

One by one, though, powerful preachers took to the pulpit to give their honor to God for sharing Parks with the world.

“You told her she was your child and she didn’t have to move back,” said Charles Adams, pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church.

Former President Bill Clinton shared a story, one that took him back 50 years to when he was a 9-year-old boy growing up in the South, riding a segregated bus and sitting in the front every day.

When Parks refused to give her seat up to a white man, Clinton said he and two of his friends who supported her actions, decided that just as blacks didn’t have to sit in the back of the bus, they no longer had to sit in the front.

“It was just a tiny gesture by three ordinary kids, but that tiny gesture was repeated over and over again millions and millions of times in the hearts and minds of children, their parents, their grandparents, proving that she did help to set us all free,” he said.

“Now that our friend Rosa Parks is gone on to that just reward … let us never forget in that simple act … she showed us every single day what it means to be free. She made us see and agree that everyone should be free,” Clinton said.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm marveled that just days earlier, Parks lay in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, a place reserved for presidents and war heroes. “But she was not a president,” Granholm said. “She was, though, a war hero.”

Granholm called Parks a warrior for equality, a warrior with a soft armor of a seamstress, one with the powerful weapon of the Sunday school teacher. A soldier who fought her war on a city bus in Montgomery.

“By your actions you have given us your final marching orders,” Granholm said. “We are enlisted in this war and on behalf of the state of Michigan, ma’am, we are reporting for duty.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson praised Parks and eloquently corrected the impression that she refused to get up when ordered by the bus driver because she was tired from a long day at work.

“My feet weren’t hurting. I was violated. I was insulted,” Jackson said, quoting Parks. “She was a freedom fighter.”

Jackson said Parks’ legacy is secure, but her work is unfinished. He urged that there be a life-sized statue in the halls of the U.S. Capitol and a memorial on Detroit’s riverfront.

Noting that thousands of people stood in line to pay their respects at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where Parks’ body had lain in honor from Monday evening to Wednesday morning, Jackson encouraged those same people to vote Tuesday.

Gwenette Giggens, 44, of Detroit, brought her two children, Desmond, 14, and Menuette, 12, to the service.

“I wanted them to hear the stories of what happened from the mouths of those who experienced it,” Giggens said. “I felt the Lord telling me to come here and I wanted my children to witness it.”

Loretta White, Parks’ cousin, said the family has been overwhelmed with support from the public and at the elaborate ceremonies in Washington and Detroit.

“We’re going to miss Auntie Rosa,” White said. “She’s the last one of my father’s generation.” White’s father and Parks were raised together in Alabama.

Seven hours and five minutes after the service began, Parks’ casket was draped with a U.S. flag and carried to a horse-drawn carriage, where she began her final journey.

(c) 2005, Detroit Free Press.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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