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Monday, October 31, 2005

Riding the Bus in Baltimore - A Tribute to Rosa Parks

I grew up in the 1960s riding buses and streetcars in Baltimore, Maryland.

Frankly, riding the bus was relaxing and convenient. We just put a quarter or a token in the meter and away we'd go. Riding the bus (or streetcar) was a simple way to get from here to there. We never thought twice about hopping on a city bus to go to school, for work, shopping or visiting. Although riding the bus doesn't cost a mere quarter anymore, Baltimore's public transportation system was (and remains) a reliable mode for getting around.

Those simpler times came back to me after hearing about the death of Rosa Parks (1913-2005), a national treasure and heroine of America's Civil Right movement, who died this past week in Detroit, Michigan.

Unfortunately, riding public transportation wasn't quite so simple for Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955, when she rode the Montgomery, Alabama bus home from her work as a seamstress. I suspect it was even sometimes dangerous for black women to ride buses in Montgomery in the 1950's, because preferred seating was determined based on a person's race. A white person sat in a seat while black people either stood or rode in the back of the bus.

In those days, "black people" were called either "Negroes" or something of a derogatory nature. It's hard to imagine today, but Negroes were actually harmed or worse in America's Southern cities by intentional or unintentional violations of social norms translated into ordnances, - i.e., not relinquishing their seat to a white person on a crowded bus.

My experiences riding Baltimore's public buses were totally different from Rosa Parks. Although my Caucasian skin and young age probably spared me the grueling racial experiences, I think about what might have happened if I'd seen an unjustified seating preference occur in front of me. Thankfully, I never witnessed anybody riding in the rear of a Baltimore City bus based upon the color of their skin.

Many times, I recall men of all colors relinquishing their seats to allow women a seat when the bus was crowded. Black and white men offered me this courtly opportunity when I grew up riding the bus. In reality, I actually enjoyed claiming the rear seat of the bus because, when I was bone tired, the firmness of the back row allowed a perfect balance for my head. I'd rest my head against the back on the rear wall of the bus like it was a soft pillow, where I dosed off without risking a tortured neck.

Rosa Parks said she was very tired on the evening of December 1, 1955, while traveling from work on the Montgomery bus. Maybe she could have chosen to nap in the rear of the bus that day, but for whatever reasons, she bravely stayed in her seat when a white man confronted her to move.

Boy, I only wish I'd been there to see the incident for myself. I'd have likely tripped the persistent white male passenger by inserting an unobtrusive foot in the aisle of the bus. "Ooops, didn't you see my foot? Oh, too bad," I can just imagine saying.

Most historians date the beginning of the modern civil rights movement in the United States to that day. Up until then, Rosa Parks was an unknown seamstress living and working in Montgomery. Rosa Parks was arrested and fined for violating a Montgomery city ordinance, but her defiance began a movement to end legal segregation in America. She is, today, an inspiration to freedom loving people everywhere.

Parks gained infamy, notoriety, recognition, praise and eventual immortality when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.

It's difficult to say why Montgomery's ordnances against Negroes riding on buses was so different from my own experiences in Baltimore. Most people in the United States think of Baltimore as a Southern City, not unlike Montgomery, unless, of course, you grew up there. Maryland was a "border" state during America's bloody and divisive Civil War - meaning it was both North and/or South. Baltimore was more Union than Confederate. Nevertheless, many Southern sympathizers lived throughout Maryland during the mid 19th century and during the Civil War. In fact, John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, fled to Clinton, Maryland, after he killed the president in Ford's Theater on the night of April 14, 1865.

Certainly, I'm relieved to have grown up in a bi-racial city where I recall both black and white men relinquishing their seats for me and other women on crowded buses. In fact, I recall one occasion on a crowded bus when an elderly Negro man offered me his seat and I refused his polite offer. I remember thinking how nice this man was, but felt he needed the seat more than I did as a 16 year old - even though, I was returning home very tired from my Saturday day job in a local hospital. After my day job, I worked Saturday evenings at another job in a local dime story. Still, I didn't want to take the Negro's seat. Moreover, I was too young to think about Rosa Parks at the time, although it's possible I was influenced by the Montgomery incident. Frankly, young people didn't talk much about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, because the Viet Nam War was more evident for our peers.

Rosa Parks received our nation's highest esteem when the US Congress decreed her body to lie in state in the Rotunda of the Washington, DC capitol building. I wonder what the relatives of those Montgomery people who created segregation ordnances think about their white-ancestors today? Surely, I'd be ashamed if it were my family involved in creating a society where working class people couldn't benefit equally from municipal transportation paid for by everybody's local tax dollars. If it were me, I might try to lead the line to pass by her body lying in state, as a gesture, to say, "I'm sorry, Ms. Parks, for what some people in our country did to discriminate against you and others of color."

Rosa Parks started the clarion call for the American Civil Rights movement, but she's also an icon representing the injustices of public discrimination everywhere.

I wish Rosa Parks shared a seat with me on the Baltimore City bus - but I'd choose the outside row so I could trip anybody who might think we didn't pay the same quarter fare to get from here to there.