By David Jackson and Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
More than a half-century of landmark civil rights history collides Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
President Obama travels to the U.S. Capitol to help unveil a statue of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks - shortly after, across the street, the Supreme Court holds a hearing on a law that Parks partly inspired and which made Obama's political career possible, the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The nation's first African-American president told SiriusXM radio talk show host Joe Madison last week it will be "a great honor" to pay tribute to Parks, whose defiance of Alabama's segregation laws inspires global freedom movements to this day.
"She was an inspiration not just to African Americans but to all people looking for justice," Obama said.
Parks, who died in 2005, refused the demands of a white bus driver in Montgomery, Ala., to vacate her seat on Dec. 1, 1955. Her arrest inspired an ultimately successful boycott of Montgomery's segregated buses, led in part by a young pastor named Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, Parks' bus sits in the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit, where thousands of visitors board it and remember - including, in 2012, President Obama.
Parks' example inspired countless sit-ins, marches and other protests against discrimination, paving the way for nation-altering legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - part of which is being reviewed Wednesday by the Supreme Court.
In a 3-year-old case - also from Alabama - the high court is being asked to throw out Section 5, the steel spine of the Voting Rights Act.
It forces nine states with a history of racial discrimination - Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia - and municipalities in seven others to get federal approval for any changes in voting procedures.
Reauthorized in 1970, 1975, 1982 and 2006, Section 5 is viewed as a savior of black and Latino voting rights by some and an anachronistic scarlet letter by others. When Congress last voted to extend it until 2031 - by overwhelming votes of 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate - it cited about 2,400 proposed voting changes blocked during the previous quarter-century.
What most bothered several of the high court's justices in the last challenge to the law in 2009 was the formula Congress used to populate Section 5 - one that has remained essentially unchanged for more than 40 years.
"Things have changed in the South," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote at the time, even while temporarily keeping the law intact. In his ruling, Roberts warned that the act's days might be numbered.
"The historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable," Roberts wrote for the court, citing voter registration and turnout levels and "unprecedented" numbers of minority elected officials.
But he warned that "the act's pre-clearance requirements and its coverage formula raise serious constitutional questions."
In honoring Parks, Obama and other lawmakers will be honoring a pioneer whose work has inspired people across the globe.
Nelson Mandela, a former prisoner who rose to become president of South Africa, once discussed the 1989 incident in which a man in China stood in front of a government tank - he called it a "Rosa Parks moment."
Historian Douglas Brinkley, a biographer of Parks, said the statue ceremony gives Obama a chance to tie together the story of a lone woman who confronted injustice and the universal desire to be free.
"Rosa Parks was all about fighting for people's rights," Brinkley said. "The fundamental right is the right to vote."
Brinkley said it's possible Obama may make reference to the Supreme Court during his Rosa Parks speech.
Obama certainly discussed voting rights during his recent State of the Union, telling Congress he had created a commission to look at ways to improve the voting experience in America, from long lines to broken machines.
Saying that defending freedom is not the military's job alone, Obama said, "We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote."