Here, on the anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by Rosa Parks keeping her historic seat, I'd like to tell you a story. Think of it as a relay race. As the baton is passed runner-to-runner, year-after-year, think of the goal line as justice.
It is September 13, 1865. The Civil War has just ended. Emancipation is the rule. Sojourner Truth -- a noted ex-slave turned abolitionist who suffered having her children sold away from her -- is yet again making history.
Living in Washington, D.C. and working with the new Freedmen's Bureau, Truth is boarding a streetcar with a White friend when the conductor pushes her aside, jerking her arm with such force that her shoulder is dislocated. The friend intercedes.
"Does she belong to you?" the driver demands of the friend, referring to the woman who not only emancipated herself in 1826, but reached out to help free others. "She does not belong to me, but she belongs to Humanity," replied the friend.
Truth reported the incident to the president of City Railway and charged the conductor with assault and battery. Not only did he lose his job, but the trial impacted streetcar etiquette. In short order, reported Miss Truth, conductors welcomed Black women with "walk in, ladies," and "the inside of those cars looked like pepper and salt."
Three years later, in California, Mary Ellen Pleasant fights and wins the same battle of the streetcar.
The baton is passed; one more runner round the bend. But with the end of Reconstruction, and the new "Black Codes," our runners are fast losing ground.
It is June 7, 1892. Despite Homer Plessy's first-class ticket to ride a Louisiana train, he is ordered to move to the segregated "colored" car then arrested for refusing. He appeals his case up to the Supreme Court.
On May 18, 1896, in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court affirms segregation, ordering millions of Blacks to "the back of the bus."
No victory lap here.
That's the problem with racism. Diminishing us all, it makes us small and petty when the world, as created, is so immense and rich. And, so we go on; trudging the same route because we must.
It is Christmastime 1949. JoAnn Robinson -- a professor at Alabama State College (a historically-Black college, founded and segregated in accordance with Plessy) -- boards a bus. Heavy-laden with packages, she is not thinking about the added burden of racism heaped on her by her White countrymen or her "place" on a segregated bus. The bus driver is and barks a degrading command. Humiliated, she flees.
Now, it is May 21, 1954, four days after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's triumphant Supreme Court "lap" on Brown v. Board of Education, overturning segregation. JoAnn Robinson (as head of Montgomery, Alabama's Women's Council, an African-American civic group) writes a letter to the mayor: "Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes. If Negroes did not patronize them, they could not possibly operate.... There has been talk [of] a city-wide boycott of busses."
One more hurdle taken.
It is December 1, 1955. Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to racism and is arrested. Robinson stays up all night mimeographing 35,000 flyers for her students to distribute the next morning. Days later, as Mrs. Parks goes to court on December 5, the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 begins.
Through 381 days of walking in the face of forces so powerful and so institutionalized that no American company will issue them car insurance, Black Montgomery carries the baton for toward another historic milestone.
But, old habits die hard; bad habits die harder. Or as Sojourner Truth wrote in a letter dictated to a friend, "It is hard for the old slave-holding spirit to die. But die it must."
Today, at the new millennium's rise, we're witnessing powerful political voices push to turn back history's clock to an unacceptable time.
In 2005, as Rosa Parks' body lay in the capitol rotunda, President Bush joined the mourners. The next morning, just as though she had never lived, he nominated Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court -- a superior court judge whose civil rights judgments have been dubious as best.
But, here's the thing. Why -- ninety years after Sojourner Truth won the case -- did Mrs. Parks have to be courageous? Arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a White man with empty seats all around him; why did that man want her seat? Why did an aggregate of White men -- the electorate, judiciary, legislature, etc. -- want to deny a thing as simple as a bus seat on account of color?
1865, 1896, 1949, 1955 -- a streetcar, a train, a bus; DWB (driving while Black), WWB (walking while Black, the killing of Trayvon Martin) and, just this week, WFBWB (waiting for the bus while Black). And with each daily humiliation, policy decisions reverberate in the take down of Affirmative Action and other Civil Rights era gains; the unrelenting pecking away at voting rights in the wake of President Obama's election victories; the outright and unrelenting racist attacks on this first African-American president and first lady. Is America that afraid of Black people on the move?
Historian Janus Adams is the author of Freedom Days: 365 Inspired Moments in Civil Rights History and founder and publisher of BackPax children's media where the latest title is also about people on the move, STEAL AWAY: Escape to Freedom on the Underground Railroad.
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