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–by Allie Swislocki

The Rotunda of the Capitol has been one of the most recognizable rooms in Washington, DC since its completion in 1824. Standing 180 feet high, with a diameter of 96 feet, the room is an architectural triumph, and generally stuns visitors with its beauty.  It is no wonder, then, that it is not only home to many priceless works of art (link to AOC website on the artwork here http://www.aoc.gov/cc/capitol/rotunda.cfm ), but is also the location of our “national stage.” It is in the Rotunda that the passing of our most eminent citizens is honored by the nation. These national ceremonies give all Americans the chance to mourn our lost heroes, as well as providing the honorees with send-offs appropriate to their stature as leaders.

Since 1852, the Rotunda has housed services for many illustrious Americans, from Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln to John Joseph Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. A nearly-complete list can be seen here http://aoc.gov/cc/capitol/lain_in_state.cfm. Upon perusal, you may notice a pattern. Not only are most of these honorees politicians, the vast majority are men. In fact, the only honoree whose DNA does not contain both the X and the Y chromosomes is Rosa Parks, groundbreaking pioneer of the Civil Rights movement.

Born February 4, 1913 (same date as this proud blogger, although a few years apart) in Tuskegee, Alabama, she is considered the engine that sent the Civil Rights movement into motion. On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, this then-seamstress refused to give up her seat to a white passenger while riding the bus home. She was arrested and fined for violating city ordinance. Her quiet defiance on that day led to the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association—helmed by a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr.—and set in motion the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott called for riders in Montgomery to walk, take cars, or use any form of transportation other than public buses in protest of the segregation laws. Boycotters hoped the financial toll to the city would inspire social change at the legislative level. And it worked. The boycott lasted 382 days. Following this, the Supreme Court outlawed any ordinance on racial segregation of public transportation, including the Montgomery law that Parks had broken.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted after her 1955 arrest (Library of Congress)

On January 10, 1957, less than one month after the Supreme Court decision, four churches and two homes across Montgomery were bombed. One unexploded bomb was found on Dr. King’s front porch. While no one was killed that particular day, Montgomery became the center point of the struggle—often violent—for civil rights in the years to come.

Sixty years later, Rosa Parks was given one of the highest honors the United States Congress can give.  Parks passed away on October 24, 2005 in Detroit, Michigan, and was honored in the Rotunda October 30-31 of that same year. Laying in state in the Capitol is allowed only through congressional resolution or approval by congressional leadership. As mentioned, of the many revered Americans who have thus far lain in state, Rosa Parks was and remains to date the only woman granted that honor, something that I’m quite certain will change as we go forward.

Be sure to look for one or two more posts before we close out Women’s History Month next week, and as always keep your questions and comments coming.

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