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U.S. leaders honor civil rights activist Rosa Parks with statue

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - American leaders unveiled a statue of Rosa Parks on Wednesday, briefly setting aside political differences to honor the civil rights heroine, who became the first black woman to have a monument inside the U.S. Capitol.

Parks' refusal to give up her seat on a segregated Alabama bus for a white passenger in 1955 sparked a boycott that galvanized the movement for equal rights for blacks in Montgomery and nationwide.

Black men and women stayed off the buses, walking or arranging other rides to work for more than a year to fight for desegregation.

President Barack Obama joined congressional leaders from both political parties to unveil the statue of Parks, who died in 2005 at age 92.

Unlike nearby statues of men standing, the one of Parks shows her seated - the position of quiet resistance that led to her arrest.

"We celebrate a seamstress, slight in stature but mighty in courage," Obama said in his remarks.

"She lived a life of activism, but also a life of dignity and grace. And in a single moment, with the simplest of gestures, she helped change America - and change the world," he said.

Obama, who seemed moved by the spirited singing of a military chorus, joined Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi at the event.

The five leaders are set to meet at the White House on Friday to discuss spending cuts scheduled to go into effect that day. Both parties are seeking to blame the other for the automatic cuts, which the White House has warned will damage economic growth.

Masking their differences, the leaders made polite conversation at the ceremony, and each gave a tribute to Parks.

Boehner compared her likeness to the Statue of Liberty and noted the irony of her statue's placement near the statue of the man who led the Confederate fight to maintain slavery during the U.S. Civil War.

"We place her ... here in a chamber where many fought to prevent a day like this, and right in the gaze of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy," Boehner said.

Obama said it was people like Parks who paved the way for his election as the first black American president in 2008.

"Rosa Parks' singular act of disobedience launched a movement," he said. "The tired feet of those who walked the dusty roads of Montgomery helped a nation see that to which it had once been blind. It is because of these men and women that I stand here today."

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Fred Barbash and Xavier Briand)

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