President Obama today unveiled a new addition to the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C.: A life-sized statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks, commissioned by Congress and crafted by Emeryville’s Daub & Firmin Studios. Rob Firmin, who designed the statue sculpted by his partner Eugene Daub, tells us how his passion for civil rights informed the new piece:
SFMAG: Your firm did the bust of Harvey Milk in San Francisco City Hall and now you’ve done Rosa Parks. Do you particularly like working on civil rights figures?
RF: It’s one of our specialties. Before I joined up with him. Eugene did Judge McCullum [civil rights leader and Alameda county judge Donald P McCullum] and we did Lincoln in his hometown. We did Milk and Parks, and we have a major monument [planned] in Oklahoma City about African Americans in Oklahoma, which hasn’t won funding yet.
Parks wasn’t someone who set out to become a national figure, she was an everyday person caught up in a bigger conflict of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott and the larger civil rights movement of the 60s. Does that affect how you plan a project like this?
Actually, her story wasn’t that simple. People say, because they learn this in high school, that she was just tired and her feet hurt so she didn’t want to move [to the back of the bus]. But in fact she had worked for the NAACP for years [recording] racial incidents in Montgomery, and she said in her autobiography that she was quite angry and ready to act. They [the NAACP] didn’t put her up to it, it was spontaneous, but she was exactly the right person at exactly the right time.
How did you approach planning the figure?
The first thing I do is that I conduct the research and the historical analysis [of the subject], and then I write the proposal. Eugene and I work out the composition and design together, and then—in a piece like Rosa—Eugene sculpts the final figure.
This is the first full-sized statue commissioned by Congress in over a hundred years. Do you think there should be more projects like this?
No, I don’t think you’ll see many more of these in the next century. Since 1873 they have reserved it [the National Statuary Hall] for someone remarkable, like Parks.
If you could add anyone else to the Statuary Hall, who would it be?
Charles Hamilton Houston. He was an [African American] attorney who became just the best Supreme Court litigator in the country, and he leveled, step by step, all of the judicial resistance to integration [Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 1939]. I’d love to work on him.
Do you ever worry that people might use these monuments as a crutch to avoid thinking about big issues? That they might assume that, since someone like Rosa Parks can get a monument in D.C., that means there aren’t anymore problems?
The primary purpose of doing what we do is to inspire people. We hope at least some people who look at this will go on to do something great for everyone else. That’s why we do it. And I don’t think that’s naïve.
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