Rosa Parks: A Portrait to Honor

On the second floor of  the National Portrait Gallery, in a hall dedicated to all those who have struggled for justice and committed their lives to social activism, a larger-than-life-sized sculpture by artist Marshall D. Rumbaugh seems to hold sway over all. Capturing a moment in the American story that is by now writ large—the day when Rosa Louise McCauley Parks took her seat at the front of the bus.

Today, Rosa Parks, who died in 2005, would have been 98 years old. Her simple and courageous act of defiance on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, was the tipping point that would spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott and eventually garner lasting recognition for Parks, including the 1979 Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Flanked by two ominous figures, both hidden behind dark sunglasses, the red, white and blue champion of the modern Civil Rights Movement draws the immediate attention of school children, says Briana Zavadil White, who coordinates school groups and works on teacher programs for the gallery.

The children, White says, immediately recognize the irony of the flag pin on the lapel of the gray-suited official and the red, white and blue outfit of the center figure. "We always begin with observations, before we interpret," White says. "They observe the proportions of the individuals and they usually notice that Rosa Parks is three-dimensional, while the individuals holding her are two-dimensional.

"The men are shaped like triangles—right side up—with small heads, large hands and even larger feet and the students often point to them and say, 'small heads equal small minds,'" White says.

The students, she adds, are frequently "struck by Rosa Parks' expression." At first, her expression seems resigned. "But as we discuss the piece, the children begin to believe that she is looking off into the distance as if deep in thought and holding her ground."

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.