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Mourners pay tribute to Rosa Parks

Clinton recalls being inspired by civil rights pioneer



Rosa Parks
Civil Rights
Detroit (Michigan)
Martin Luther King Jr

DETROIT, Michigan (CNN) -- Thousands of mourners packed a Detroit church Wednesday for an emotional tribute to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who changed the country 50 years ago when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man.

About 4,000 people crowded the Greater Grace Temple in Parks' adopted hometown for her funeral, and another 1,000 people sat in an overflow room of the church. Hundreds more lined up outside the building.

The ceremony brought together civil rights giants -- the Revs. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Joseph Lowery -- along with prominent figures such as former President Clinton and his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; Michigan Rep. John Conyers; Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan; and singer Aretha Franklin.

Bishop Charles Ellis III opened the service by saying mourners had a mix of emotions, ranging from "tears of sadness to tears of joy" as they remembered "this humble warrior."

Parks' wooden casket sat on a white platform at the front of the stage. Just before the casket was closed around noon, the audience sang "We Shall Overcome," the civil rights movement's anthem.

At the end of the seven-hour service, the casket was draped in an American flag and carried to a caisson outside, where two white horses stood ready to carry her to her final resting place.

Jackson told the crowd he once asked Parks why she didn't simply give up her seat on that day on December 1, 1955.

"I thought about Emmett Till, and I couldn't go back," Jackson quoted her as saying, referring to the August 1955 lynching in Mississippi of Till, a black teen from Chicago, Illinois.

Jackson added, "Some people's lives are worthy of taking the time to say goodbye to."

Sharpton said the lessons of Parks' life should never be forgotten.

"Rosa Parks was not only the mother of the modern civil rights movement, she was the mother of this nation," he said.

Why, he asked, would he say that when George Washington is remembered as the "father of our nation?"

"The first time we had a parent in this nation is when all of us were included, and Rosa Parks did that on December 1, 1955," he said.

'God bless you, Rosa'

Parks, 92, died October 24 in Detroit. She became a symbol of the modern struggle for civil rights after refusing to give up her bus seat a half-century ago in Montgomery, Alabama.

Her action triggered a 381-day boycott of the bus system by blacks that was organized by a 26-year-old Baptist minister, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The boycott's immediate effect came a year later when the Supreme Court struck down the city's Jim Crow bus segregation ordinance.

But the passions it stirred in the black community led to a movement under King's leadership that ultimately saw the passage of national legislation abolishing all forms of discrimination, particularly in public accommodations.

Clinton, who honored Parks with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, recalled being inspired by her action. (Watch: How Parks inspired Clinton -- 7:25)

"I was a 9-year-old Southern white boy who rode a segregated bus every single day of my life," Clinton said.

"When Rosa showed us that black folks didn't have to sit in the back anymore, two of my friends and I who strongly approved of what she had done decided we didn't have to sit in the front anymore."

He called it "a tiny gesture by three ordinary kids," but said the gesture was repeated throughout the civil rights struggle, "proving that she did help to set us all free."

"She showed us every day what it means to be free," he said. "God bless you, Rosa. God bless you."

The ceremony, which began at 11 a.m. and lasted to around 6 p.m., was marked by lively gospel songs, passionate sermons and reflections on Parks' importance. Other politicians present included Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sens. Barack Obama and John Kerry.

Franklin, the "Queen of Soul," sang a gospel tribute to Parks that brought many to their feet.

Throughout the service, punctuated at times by jubilant shouts of praise and thunderous applause, Parks was remembered as a small lady who made an enormous contribution to U.S. history.

"I think the important message today is that an ordinary person -- a quiet, humble person -- can ignite a movement," said National Urban League President Marc Morial before the service.

President criticized

At times, speakers at the ceremony took on a political tinge.

Lowery, 84, told the audience that at a memorial service in Montgomery he found himself seated next to an "old homegirl from Alabama" -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"I took advantage of the moment because she couldn't move; she had to sit there and hear what I had to say," he said to loud cheers.

Lowery said he urged her to act on Parks' memory and push for extension of the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years.

One of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Lowery also took a swipe at President Bush for what he said was a failure to honor Parks when he nominated conservative Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court on Monday. (Full story)

"He missed an opportunity to name somebody to the courts with the spirit of Rosa Parks, with diversity and minority rights," Lowery said.

Jackson expressed a similar sentiment: "He put forth an anti-Rosa Parks judge. ... Just maybe, we need a White House conference on civil rights."

Parks was honored Saturday at a memorial service in Montgomery before she lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol on Sunday and Monday, the first woman to do so.

Bush ordered the U.S. flag to be flown at half-staff Wednesday in remembrance of Parks.

Residents of Detroit also paid their respects at the city's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where Parks lay in repose before Wednesday's service.

On December 1, 1955, Parks -- a 42-year-old seamstress -- refused to give up her bus seat and was arrested. (Watch: Schoolchildren re-enact Parks' protest -- 1:41)

"I only knew that [as] I was being arrested it was the last time I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind," Parks recalled in 1999.

CNN's Dan Lothian contributed to this report.

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