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WASHINGTON — She stood up for equal rights by sitting down. This week, she will be laid to rest. Rosa Parks, who died October 24th at age 92, became the first woman to be honored with a public viewing in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. As the life of this civil rights icon is celebrated, the generations of Americans who have taken up Parks' fight for equality are discussing the legacy she leaves behind.

"She was a catalyst for the civil rights movement," said 23-year-old William Thomas. "We celebrate her life, definitely." Thomas was at the public viewing of Parks' casket in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol with students from the middle school class he teaches in Washington, D.C.

Parks gained notoriety in December 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., and was arrested. Martin Luther King Jr. organized a mass boycott by blacks of the Montgomery bus system for 381 days. That boycott, fueled by the outrage Parks' arrest caused, eventually led to the desegregation of buses in Montgomery and, in coming years, public transportation throughout the entire country.

But despite her monumental contribution, Thomas laments the many people his age who aren't aware of what Parks meant to American history. "A lot of [people in] the new generation thought she was dead already," Thomas said.

Thirteen-year-old Jon Ramey and 12-year-old Joseph Michael Jones of Purcellville, Va., learned about Parks in their history class and came to Washington to see her casket. They weren't sure they could have done what she did.

"I probably would have moved," shrugged Ramey. "I'm just a little kid against a bunch of men."

Jones said he would have held his ground.

"I would have just sat there and ignored them or something," he offered.

For many students entering college, their knowledge of the civil rights movement doesn't advance beyond what Ramey and Jones know. Sociology professor Doreen E. Loury of Arcadia University said teachers are partly to blame.

"I think the disservice that education has done for this [generation] is the 'toting around' of Martin Luther King and Sojourner Truth for black history month," said Loury, implying that other influential members of the civil rights movement are too often ignored.

"Do [students] really understand how powerful that Montgomery boycott was?" she continued. "The only way people could get to work was to ride the bus - I think that's what young people and some old folks don't understand."

Kathey Logan, 44, of Spotsylvania County, Va., brought her kids to the Capitol to try to help them understand what Rosa Parks did for African-Americans.

"I want to let them know all the benefits they're receiving," Logan said. "What they take for granted is because of what [Parks] did."

Peter Dillon, 23, of Springfield, Mass., was one of the last people let in to see Parks lie in state. He said he was there for the same reason as everyone else - to honor a civil rights hero.

"This woman sparked a revolution that destroyed cultural barriers," marveled Dillon. "It's an amazing thing."

— Eric Crouch Medill News Service

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