Artist Behind Rosa Parks Statue: She Was 'Superwoman Dressed In Clark Kent's Clothes'

President Obama and the top congressional leaders gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday morning for the dedication of a new statue honoring civil rights activist Rosa Parks, whose refusal to give up a seat on a public bus sparked a boycott and a movement.

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While the Supreme Court debated policy going back to the Civil Rights era, President Obama was at the Capitol, dedicating a new statue.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This morning, we celebrate a seamstress, slight in stature but mighty in courage.

CORNISH: That mighty seamstress? Rosa Parks. It has been 57 years since Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, launching the Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott. NPR's Ailsa Chang was at the Capitol for the statue's dedication.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When they say Capitol Hill is full of old white men, they could be talking about either the human ones or the ones made of bronze and stone. Statuary Hall is a big marbled dome where people like Daniel Webster and Brigham Young are frozen in time. Rosa Parks will be the first full-size statue of an African-American here. And Erica Thedford, who's the great-niece of Parks, says that means the woman is still breaking down barriers.

ERICA THEDFORD: You know, she's still working. You know, she's still working her legacy even after she's gone. I said I wouldn't cry here, so I'm trying to keep it calm, you know?

CHANG: Martin Luther King Jr. is memorialized in the Capitol too, but so far, only as a bust, not full size. Here's King in 1955 explaining Parks' role in the bus boycott.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Just the other day, one of the fine citizens of our community, Mrs. Rosa Parks, was arrested because she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger.

CHANG: Parks wasn't the first black person to refuse to give up her bus seat. Others before her did too. But one of the two artists for the sculpture, Rob Firmin, says Parks committed the act with a unique, quiet dignity.

ROB FIRMIN: Some of the people who did it before, for example, threw fits and screamed, and that did not go over well with the local NAACP.

CHANG: Firmin and sculptor Eugene Daub spent nearly three years bringing Parks to bronzed life. Right away, they had a challenge: How do you make sitting on a bus look heroic? Daub says it meant coaxing contradictions out of bronze.

EUGENE DAUB: I think you'll see that her body looks very rooted but yet relaxed. And her face is quiet, modest, but yet I think you'll sense a strength there. And she's looking out, sort of, over the heads of everybody. And I think that kind of gives her a look of vision.

CHANG: The seat cushions and poles of the bus have disappeared around her to, as Daub put it, turn up the volume on Parks' face.

DAUB: I think of the Superman thing because, to me, she was sort of like a Superwoman dressed in Clark Kent's clothes.

CHANG: The Rosa Parks statue is the first sculpture commissioned by Congress since 1873. The forest of white men standing around her, they were almost all gifts from individual states. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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