The statue of civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks unveiled in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall this week is just the latest in a line of historical figures bearing the imprint of sculptor Rob Firmin.
The California artist, who collaborated on the design with sculptor Eugene Daub, has also helped create a 9-foot bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus, a 24-inch bronze bust of slain politician Harvey Milk in San Francisco City Hall, and a 5-foot bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln in Hodgenville, Ky. In the latter, the Great Emancipator is shown as a barefoot 7-year-old reading from a spelling book.
Firmin was present for the Rosa Parks unveiling ceremony on Wednesday but was mobbed by reporters and well-wishers afterward and could not make a scheduled interview with National Journal Daily. But in a recent interview with the alumni magazine for the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in demographics, Fermin said he hoped his artwork could serve a larger public purpose. “People are not getting more rational,” he said. “I’m going to inspire people to higher achievement.”
Raised in a small Ohio town, Firmin double-majored in history and art history at Denison University. According to the University of Chicago profile, he was inspired to apply to graduate school by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, a dire prognosis for mankind that spooked Firmin. It took him almost 10 years to earn his doctorate; the title of his dissertation: “The Effect of Economic Conditions Upon Differential Fertility in the United States, 1955–1970.”
Firmin also holds a business degree from Columbia University. Before partnering with Daub—they founded Daub & Firmin Sculpture Studios based in Kensington, Calif., in 2005—Firmin established a rationality-software company in Cambridge, Mass.
The statue of Rosa Parks, who died in 2005, is historic on many levels. She is the first black woman with a full-sized statue in Statuary Hall. And she is a renowned heroine of the civil-rights movement for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white passenger on Dec. 1, 1955, when segregation was still firmly entrenched in the South.
The sculpture shows Parks with her hands crossed on her lap—a demure pose for a woman whose brazen act spurred a revolution.
The statue is 9 feet tall and weighs 2,700 pounds, which belies her diminutive stature: the matronly Parks was only 5 feet 3 inches tall.
“Rosa Parks’s singular act of disobedience launched a movement,” President Obama told a gathering of lawmakers and dignitaries as the statue was unveiled. “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. It is because of them that our children grow up in a land more free and more fair; a land truer to its founding creed. And that is why this statue belongs in this hall—to remind us, no matter how humble or lofty our positions, just what it is that leadership requires, just what it is that citizenship requires.”
It was a moment of comity in a season of animus. On hand were not just the president’s allies in Congress—including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.—but his adversary in a series of bouts over taxes and spending: House Speaker John Boehner.
This article appears in the March 1, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.