Standing for Miss Rosa

"I’ll go late in the day," I tell my husband. "That way, I’ll avoid most of the crowd."

It’s Sunday, October 30, 2005, and Rosa Parks is coming to Washington. Her casket will lie in state in the rotunda of the Capitol building, and, from there, to its final resting place in Atlanta.

I’ve lived in Washington off and on for almost 20 years. I’m a veteran of many marches here, and I’ve become adept at avoiding traffic snarls and delays generated by numerous marathons, protests, public holiday celebrations, and the general tourist flow. Enduring big public gatherings comes with living in the nation’s capital.

But this event is something different. For the first time in U.S. history, an African American woman will be accorded an honor reserved for a select few statesmen, generals, and presidents. This woman has been an icon of the nonviolent struggle for equality. I have to be there.

The Washington stop was not in the initial funeral itinerary, so plans were made hastily and information is sketchy. The time allotted for the Washington public to pay its respects is truncated—Sunday until 11:00 pm, then an additional three hours on Monday. I plan to leave my home at 9:00 pm; by then most of the daytime crowd should be dispersed. Parents will be shepherding their kids home; after all, the following day is a school and work day.

"I should be back in a few hours," I tell my husband. "But don’t wait up for me."

I’m encouraged when I reach the Capitol South subway stop, about two blocks from the rotunda. While there are throngs of people, most seemed to be returning from the Capitol. I walk swiftly, past the blue canopy on the side of the building that leads visitors to the entrance and the rotunda viewing.

The U.S. Capitol, the highest building in D.C., dominates the cityscape. It is built on a hill that slopes down to meet the national Mall—the long wooded boulevard ringed by museums and monuments. I can’t even see the end of the line, which extends down the hill. I continue walking down three more blocks—the big, ponderous blocks of official Washington. "How much longer can the line be?" I wonder.

The area is alive with people, lights, and police cars. But there is no jostling, no noise of sirens, just a low buzz of voices and muffled tread as hundreds on the line inch forward. Emergency lights illuminate the Mall, casting shadows and lending an eerie air to the night scene. To corral the crowd, temporary picket fence barriers zigzag up the hill.

At the bottom of the hill, I still can’t find the end of the line, which curves westward, snakes back on itself in long loops, and extends as far as the eye can see. "Is this the end?" I ask files of people, who keep gesturing behind them. Just when it seems there really is no end, I suddenly find myself there; immediately dozens more people pour in behind.

I calculate. Far, far in the distance is the Capitol, with rows and rows of people ahead of me. Should I stay? I wrap my scarf tighter, settle in for a long wait, and survey my fellow line mates.

Although it is slowly changing, Washington is still a city divided by class and color. But in this line I immediately see that a lively mélange of ages and races have spontaneously come together: A gaggle of young white girls sporting their school soccer jerseys; a young woman in strappy high heels stepping delicately through the muddy morass produced on the grassy mall by a thousand feet; a tough but dignified black matriarch pushed in a wheelchair; a baby napping blissfully on his father’s back; multigenerational families with younger members in their Sunday best; Gen-Xers with the ubiquitous cellphone, messaging to friends, "You should see what it’s like here!"

This is a vigil, but not a mournful one. From time to time, soft fragments of melody rise up—spirituals, freedom songs—moving up the line in murmurs, then fading. We offer our mufflers, plus gloves and cap, to a little boy who’s left home without them. Strangers share bottled water, segments of fruit, and bites of candy bars for energy. Even the police, who are usually so grim in our security-obsessed city, are relaxed and joking.

I think of the lines from the spiritual: I ain’t no ways tired, and move forward.

As we traverse another block, the National Museum of the American Indian comes into view. The sight of this building, with its undulating lines and pale Minnesota limestone—from my beloved home state—warms my heart. It was long in the making and opened only the previous year. Its central position facing the Capitol speaks symbolic volumes about a people who have long been oppressed and dismissed. Its presence affirms: We’re still here. Their spirit, too, is a part of this special night.

Word travels down the line that viewing hours have been extended indefinitely and no one will be turned away. The news cheers and revives, though I’m still what appears to be a quarter mile from the Capitol entrance.

I strike up a conversation with a woman ahead of me. She has driven seven hours from upstate New York and plans to drive straight back and proceed to work. "I couldn’t have missed this," she tells me. "This is history." She gives me strength.

I’ve come too far to turn back now . . .

We’re approaching the south lawn of the Capitol. I know this view well. Soon after the start of the Iraq war, local Friends obtained a permit to establish a silent vigil here. The group continues to meet weekly, attracting both non-Friends and Quakers from the various meetings in the region. Occasionally I join the faithful few when they meet each Saturday at noon. We face the center of our government for an hour, displaying the group’s blue banner, which simply reads, "Seek Peace and Pursue It." Through good weather and bad, through indifference, through expressions of support (and occasional hostility) from passersby, we continue our witness.

I reflect on Rosa Parks’ patience and persistence, the inner conviction and preparation expressed in her public act.

Nobody said it would be easy . . .

I move forward imperceptibly and suddenly reach the canopy that marks the long entrance into the Capitol building. We’re herded through the usual security checkpoints, emptying backpacks and purses onto conveyer belts, sometimes standing with arms spread for a "wanding." An almost comical mountain of abandoned water bottles forms—security threats of the thirsty?

And then we enter the Capitol, blinking in the unexpected bright lights, taking in the burnished and spacious opulence of the rotunda. In the center, cordoned by velvet ropes, surrounded by floral tributes from the world’s powerful, is the casket of the quiet, determined seamstress. Nearby is a portrait of the familiar, gentle face, framed by soft grey braids. I have only a moment to pause, to pray, to murmur, "Thank you, Miss Rosa."

Back into the cold night air, I head toward the Union Station subway. At the station, I share a cab with two fellow vigilers—a young immigrant from Ethiopia and an elder who survived the dark days of segregation.

At home I realize that more than six hours have passed since I left to bid goodbye to Miss Rosa Parks. A tub full of hot water eases the cold from my bones, and a soft pillow waits. As I slip into bed, the rosy-pink day is just beginning to dawn.

My feet are tired, but my soul is at rest . . .

The Washington Post reported that more than 30,000 people paid their respects to Rosa Parks during the day and a half that her casket lay in state.

Gerri Williams

Gerri Williams, a member and alternate clerk of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.), is in graduate studies in International Migration Trafficking; she leads workshops on human trafficking for Friends' and other organizations.