See the Capitol's New Rosa Parks Statue

PHOTO:  President Barack Obama speaks at the unveiling of a statue of Rosa Parks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.Charles Dharapak/AP Photo
President Barack Obama speaks at the unveiling of a statue of Rosa Parks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

On the same day the Supreme Court began hearing a challenge to the constitutionality of part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, congressional leaders gathered for a much less contentious civil rights event: they unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks at the Capitol.

The civil rights icon is the first African-American woman to join the other figures memorialized in Statuary Hall.

She was "slight in stature, but mighty in courage," President Barack Obama said at the unveiling ceremony on Wednesday morning.

The event, attended by members of Congress and other guests, including a friend and niece of Parks, was a once in a lifetime moment. Literally. Parks' statue is the first full-size statue approved and funded by Congress since the 1870s. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi proposed the idea at Parks' memorial service in the fall of 2005, and Former President George W. Bush signed the bill authorizing the creation of the statue into law on December 1 of that year, 50 years to the day after Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Both Democratic and Republican leaders honored the quiet strength of the woman who would have turned 100 this month.

As Republican House Speaker John Boehner said, the event was a "homecoming of sorts" for the Alabama native. Parks worked for nearly 20 years as an assistant to Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan). She was his first congressional hire, and Pelosi joked about the fact that people used to stop by Conyer's office not to see him, but the short, unassuming woman who had helped shape history.

Parks wasn't looking to make history that December day, but when the bus driver told her to move, she politely refused. When he said he'd have her arrested, she said, "You may do that." It was a simple act, but a powerful one. She was indeed arrested and the incident angered members of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Leaders organized a bus boycott that helped spark a shift toward desegregation.

The bronze statue shows a stoic Parks much as she was on that day -- seated, in a hat and unrimmed glasses, staring straight ahead and clutching her purse. She is surrounded by statues of men in powdered wigs and ornate waistcoats. These other statues in the hall have been donated by various states.

The unveiling took place 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It took place 50 years after the famous March on Washington that concluded with King's renowned "I have a dream" speech.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina) noted how far the country has come since then at the unveiling, but said there is more to do.

"The struggle goes on," he said, "the pursuit is not over."

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Pelosi echoed that sentiment.

"We are still considering how to eradicate slavery's unsavory successors," Reid said.

Obama, too, called for action to eliminate current racism and discrimination. His administration is in the midst of defending a section of the Voting Rights Act that it says is essential. The section requires some states to get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, DC, before they change their election practices.

"We so often spend our lives," he said, "as if in a fog, accepting injustice."

"Rosa Parks," he continued, "tells us there's always something we can do."