The Spectacle Blog

Rotunda Politics

By on 10.31.05 | 7:18PM

Rosa Parks was a fine, brave woman who helped to push the levers of American history in a positive direction. Her death deserves to be marked with appropriate solemnity; but does it follow that she deserves to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda? And who gets to lie in the Rotunda, anyway? According to Wikipedia:

The first leader to receive this honor was statesman Henry Clay in 1852. Since then the honor has been extended to 10 U.S. presidents, including the four who were assassinated, but is not limited to them.…No law, written rule, or regulation specifies who may lie in state; use of the Rotunda is controlled by concurrent action of the House and Senate. Any person who has rendered distinguished service to the nation may lie in state if the family so wishes and Congress approve.... Because lying in state is considered by some in the U.S. to be reserved for former presidents and military officials, when the procedure is followed to honor a civilian, it is sometimes referred to as lying in honor.

There may be no formal rules governing the ritual, but since 1852, only 29 Americans have lain in the Rotunda. That number includes 10 presidents, the most recent being President Reagan in 2004. It also includes a few senators, Generals Pershing and MacArthur, J. Edgar Hoover, Hubert Humphrey, and two U.S. Capitol police officers killed in the line of duty in 1998. Parks is just the second non-governmental official, the first being Pierre L'Enfant in 1909.

You don't win new friends by quibbling with the honors accorded an old woman. Even so, it's difficult to escape the suspicion that mourning Parks in the Rotunda is a desperate gesture of overcompensation from a civil rights establishment that has been bankrupt of ideas and moral force for several decades. Over-elevating her now will only do a disservice when more eminent, and infinitely more accomplished, black Americans eventually pass from the scene. When they do, they will only be able to equal, not exceed, the honors accorded a woman whose act of refusal in 1955 had no greater aim than to allow them, eventually, to pass her by.

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