Sculptor Gives Behind-the-Scenes Look at Rosa Parks Memorial

Sculpture portrays Parks sitting, but not on a bus seat.

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President Barack Obama touches a statue of Rosa Parks with Speaker of the House John Boehner during a ceremony unveiling her statue in Statutory Hall of the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 27, 2013.
President Barack Obama touches a statue of Rosa Parks with Speaker of the House John Boehner during a ceremony unveiling her statue in Statutory Hall of the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 27, 2013.

Rosa Parks, most famous for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama in 1955, is now getting a permanent seat in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall, as a nine-foot bronze sculpture of the civil rights activist was unveiled there Wednesday morning.

The sculpted Parks is portrayed sitting down, though not on a bus seat, because sculptor Rob Firmin says that choice "would trivialize things."

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"It's about her, not about a bus," he says.

Firmin, who conducted months of research on Parks before starting, assisted his partner Eugene Daub in the design and sculpture. The National Endowment for the Arts chose Firmin and Daub, whose previous work includes a sculpture of Abraham Lincoln near his birthplace, from 115 applicants.

The finished sculpture was unveiled Wednesday before President Barack Obama, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, civil rights leaders, and members of the Parks family. It marks the first time Congress has authorized a full-size statue in the Statuary Hall since 1973, and this is the first full-size statue of an African-American woman to be included there.

Like the sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. unveiled in August 2011 on the National Mall, Parks is portrayed with a look of determination. But unlike that sculpture, she is depicted as turned to the side in her seat, a choice Firmin says was made to represent that she "turned away from discrimination."

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Another conscious decision: to show her partly embedded in what looks like rock.

"The rock-like formation that she is emerging from gives anyone who looks at it a sense of solidity, that this woman isn't moving. It means she is an immovable object," Firmin says. Police removed Parks from her bus seat in 1955 after she refused to move to the designated colored section.

There was one planned aspect of the sculpture that never made it to the final stages. Firmin says he and Daub initially thought about including a quote attributed to King that said Parks was the "spark that ignited the modern Civil Rights Movement."

The finished sculpture includes only the text of her name, birth year, and year of death, because Firmin says that is "the modern tradition in the national statuary hall."

Last year, an inscription on the King memorial sparked controversy because it was a paraphrased quote, and the Department of the Interior later approved a plan to remove it. Firmin doesn't expect the Parks sculpture to stir that level of controversy.

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Instead, he hopes visitors come away from the sculpture seeing that "a perfectly normal woman can change the world." "If they will be inspired to do something out of the ordinary, that would make it all worth it," he says.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook or reach her at eflock@usnews.com.