Much More Than a Seat on the Bus: 60 Years Later

By Ruth Hawley-Lowry 12-01-2015
Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (ca. 1955). Public Domain via Wikimedia. 

We have told ourselves the story that somehow benevolent white folks acquiesced (and perhaps even saw the error of our ways) and, after a court case, “let” Mrs. Parks and all black folks sit wherever they wanted to on a bus. And, golly, looking back perhaps we were a little stringent in fussing about who sat where on a bus—but that’s all behind us now. Goodness—it sure would be nice if people would just stop talking about race!

The problem with this narrative is that it isn’t true. We in America haven’t dealt with the complicated history of what happened on Dec. 1, 1955 — or what happened before, or after. Many Americans have heard the name “Rosa Parks,” and they may have heard something about a bus. But they don’t know the history. As we look at the profound unrest and distrust in our nation, it is important to know the history.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King moved into the parsonage on Sept. 1, 1954 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. In Stride Toward Freedom Dr. King writes of how Mrs. King had, since her teenager years, “breathed the free air of unsegregated colleges, and stayed as a welcome guest in white homes.”

While Brown v. Board of Education was determined by the Supreme Court, the Deep South still maintained the lines of segregation. Seeds were being planted for what happened that day. Months earlier, on March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin was arrested for the same act for which Mrs. Parks was arrested. She refused to give up her seat. She later told Newsweek: "I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, 'Sit down girl!' I was glued to my seat." But Claudette was 15 and became pregnant around that time, and the civil rights leaders, while present with her in court, were not clear that they could mount a campaign around her in the midst of her pregnancy and her youth.

On Aug. 28, 1955 Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi because some locals didn’t appreciate the way that they perceived he acted around a white woman. They tortured him, shot him in the head, murdered him, tied a weight around him, and threw him in the river. His body was recovered three days later. His mother, Mamie, insisted that people see what such hate did to her son — and Jet magazine published the photos on Sept. 15, 1955.

Then, months later in December, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat up to a white man on the bus. As the police discussed what they would do and they said that they would arrest her, Mrs. Parks had the face of Emmett Till in her mind.

Rev. King writes in Stride Toward Freedom that many people “in the white community argued that she had been ‘planted by the NAACP in order to lay the groundwork for a test case,” particularly given the fact that Mrs. Parks had been a former secretary of the local branch of the NAACP. However, Dr. King explained that “the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’”

Civil rights leaders met and organized an economic resistance. They decided that no one would ride the bus. They would walk. They would share rides in cars. People phoned each other. The next day “more than forty people from every segment of Negro life” had gathered. A few days after that many more people met in a church and they discussed how long the bus boycott would last.

The next morning Mrs. King called Rev. King to the window to look at the bus stop by their house. They looked in the windows and every seat was empty. The boycott was working.

Dr. King wrote: “There comes a time when people get tired of being plunged into the abyss of exploitation and nagging injustice. The story of Montgomery is the story of fifty thousand such Negroes who were willing to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery until the walls of segregation were finally battered by the forces of justice.” The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days, ending Dec. 20, 1956.

This past “Black Friday” many of us boycotted buying anything — #NotOneDime — and we learned that, according to TIME, the sales were down by $1 billion this year. In Chicago, many of my friends gathered and marched down the Magnificent Mile. Some in my family were incensed — “What does that prove?” I explained that (a) most of the crowds on the Magnificent Mile are usually predominately white and having my friends’ faces show up reminded everyone that we are in this together, and (b) that the death of a 18-year-old child was more important than the inconvenience to shoppers for one day. Rev. Otis Moss III, Father Michael Pfleger, and other faith leaders are supporting specific calls for justice.

But so many of us are worried about using the “racism” word that we are missing what (I believe) God is doing right now. Ruby Sales is a civil rights activist who marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. She was 17 (like Laquan McDonald) when white Jonathan Daniels was murdered as he stepped in front of a bullet meant for her from the gun on a racist county deputy.

She writes:

To keep insisting that racism is a personal defect rather than systemic entraps the argument on changing hearts rather than changing the system of racism/ White supremacy. This point of view leads to statements that speak about bridge building rather than a honest and deep analysis and admission that the very nature and security of White supremacy depends on the systemic powerlessness of people from colored ethnicities. Yes, we need to get to know each other better and more intimately. However, this cannot be achieved where there are systemic power disparities. The starting point must be democracy and not White supremacy.

This all will require a great deal of work — work that we must all be dedicated toward completing. Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, wrote of his explanation to Mrs. Parks regarding his work when he said:

Well, I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities. We want to see more diversity in decision-making roles in the justice system. We’re trying to educate people about racial history and the need for racial justice. We’re trying to confront abuse of power by police and prosecutors—” I realized that I had gone on way too long, and I stopped abruptly. Ms. Parks, Ms. Carr, and Ms. Durr were all looking at me. Ms. Parks leaned back, smiling. “Ooooh, honey, all that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” We all laughed. I looked down, a little embarrassed. Then Ms. Carr leaned forward and put her finger in my face and talked to me just like my grandmother used to talk to me. She said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”

We’ve got to be brave, brave, brave. Like Mrs. Parks. Like Bryan Stevenson. Like Ruby Sales. Like my friends on the Magnificent Mile. And eventually the legacy of racism that has been a part of our heritage for centuries will be dismantled. And we will remember that this has always been so much more than a seat on the bus.

The Rev. Ruth Hawley-Lowry has pastored in the New York, Chicago, and Grand Rapids areas.

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