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How Buses Have Already Changed Us for the Better

January 18, 2011

Made by General Motors in Pontiac, Mich., 1948

One of the greatest moments in the U.S. civil rights movement took place on a public bus.

It was December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Ala., and Rosa Parks had just clocked out for the day at her seamstress job. She got on the Cleveland Avenue bus to head home, refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, got arrested for it, sparked a 381-day city bus boycott, and made national history. Her actions and those of her co-activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr., ultimately led to the abolishment of the South’s Jim Crow laws.

I get excited when I think about what a huge role public transportation played in this important social movement.

“The bus was among the first ways I realized there was a black world and a white world,” Rosa Parks said, as reported by the Henry Ford Museum, which owns the original bus.

“Under Jim Crow customs and laws,” reads exhibit copy, “it was relatively easy to separate the races in every area of life except transportation. Bus and train companies couldn’t afford separate cars and so blacks and whites had to occupy the same space. Thus, transportation was one the most volatile arenas for race relations in the South.

“City buses were lightning rods for civil rights activists.”

These activists recognized that the bus was not only a vehicle of mass transit, but a vehicle of social change. Thanks to them, today the only bus passengers that receive special treatment are those—like seniors and wheel-chair-users—who need or deserve it.

Yesterday, to honor these activists, hundreds of thousands of my fellow Americans volunteered for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service.

Me? I slept late, baked banana bread, went for a run, and met up with some friends for happy hour. Though I didn’t show it, I am grateful to them—for their sound action strategy, for their dogged persistence, for their amazing cooperation, and for their extraordinary courage, which makes me feel guilty for whining about rainy days and imperfect bus schedules.

I am grateful to them, because 55 years later, I can happily ramble about the public bus as the grand equalizer.

I have to say though, the banana bread was really, really good.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 4:29 pm

    Hey Amy! Congrats on being car-free! We are a 2 person/2 car household and I constantly toy with the idea of ditching one car, but I love being able to take the other car when one breaks down (which further fuels my getting rid of one car mentality). That said I’m a fellow bike/RTD commuter in Denver. See you on the trails and streets!

  2. avaerewyck permalink
    January 21, 2011 2:05 pm

    Hi Seth – Thanks for reading! So nice to hear from my neighbors. Got any fun bus or bike stories?

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