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'Strength from stillness': Rosa Parks statue unveiled in US Capitol

Sculptor Eugene Daub, who created the likeness of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, described why he decided not to show the famous bus seat that Parks refused to give up. The unveiling of the sculpture was especially poignant for Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who said Parks paved the way for other African-American luminaries and 'gave me a way out.' NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

More than half a century after she refused to give up her seat on an Alabama city bus, Rosa Parks has an immovable place in the U.S. Capitol — the first black woman to be honored with a statue there.

President Barack Obama and congressional leaders from both parties said at an unveiling Wednesday that the depiction was fitting: Parks is shown seated, hands clasped in front of her, eyes fixed forward.

“Rosa Parks’ singular act of disobedience launched a movement,” Obama said. “The tired feet of those who walked the dusty roads of Montgomery helped a nation see that to which it had once been blind.”

On Dec. 1, 1955, Parks, then a 42-year-old seamstress, broke the law by refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a packed bus. Her arrest touched off a yearlong boycott of the bus system, a turning point in the civil rights movement. In 1956, the Supreme Court banned segregation on public transportation.

Parks died in October 2005, at age 92, and would have turned 100 this month.

On Wednesday, Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and the highest-ranking black member of Congress, called her “the first lady of civil rights, the mother of the movement, the saint of an endless struggle.”

The statue’s unveiling took place on a day when memories of the civil rights struggle were not far from mind in Washington. Across the street, with Clyburn watching, the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 should stand. The act requires nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal permission to change voting rules.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner look at the statue of Rosa Parks after its unveiling in the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.

The statue of Parks, 9 feet tall and in bronze, will be in Statuary Hall, where the House of Representatives met in the early 1800s. It is part of a collection of 100 in five locations in the Capitol.

Among the others in Statuary Hall are William Jennings Bryan and Daniel Webster. House Speaker John Boehner pointed out that the statue of Parks will be “right in the gaze” of that of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. He said her unassuming presence should inspire people to “draw strength from stillness.”

Parks was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, but Rhea McCauley, a niece, told The Associated Press before the unveiling that this honor would be different.

“The medal, you could take it, put it on a mantel,” she said. “But her being in the hall itself is permanent.”

More than 50 of Parks’ relatives had planned to attend the ceremony, and two of them, a niece and a longtime friend, helped Obama and congressional leaders yank down the shroud that covered the statue.

The sculptor was Eugene Daub of San Pedro, Calif.

“She seemed to me a very — not shy, but modest. A very modest woman, and I wanted that to come through,” he told NBC News. “That she wasn’t ever looking for attention or celebrity, but she was just doing what she had to do.”

Obama said that Parks’ story is a reminder that “we so often spend our lives as if in a fog, accepting injustice, rationalizing inequity” — like the bus driver, he said, but also like the other passengers.

“Rosa Parks tells us there’s always something we can do,” he said.

President Obama joined Congressional leaders today on Capitol Hill to unveil a new statue of Rosa Parks. Sculptor Eugene Daub told NBC News how he felt creating the likeness of one of the most definitive characters in American history.

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