Mass Movement: Civic Rights | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Mass Movement: Civic Rights

On mass transit, Rosa Parks started a mass movement

On Oct. 30, the body of Rosa Parks -- the woman who catalyzed the civil-rights movement in 1955 by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man -- was brought to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to lie in honor, the first woman and one of the few civilians so honored.


Following Parks' hearse was a restored 1950s D.C. Metro bus that had been draped in black bunting, a humble addition that suited Parks' own blend of pride and populism.


In other cities, commuters were reminded that the storied movement began on an everyday city bus, the important -- yet segregated -- connection between an urbanizing black population and the low-paying jobs to which most were restricted.


In Detroit, where Parks spent the second half of her life, the front seats of city buses bore black ribbons. Meanwhile, visitors came to the Henry Ford Museum to see the restored Montgomery bus where it's believed the 42-year-old seamstress was arrested.


Cleveland's transit authority posted signs reading, "This seat is reserved for no one. RTA honors the woman who took a stand by sitting down. Rosa Parks 1913-2005."


In Montgomery, the city where Parks' arrest triggered the famous 381-day bus boycott, and where Parks subsequently suffered threats and unemployment following her activism, the Montgomery Transit Authority draped its buses' front seats in black.


The civil-rights movement that followed Parks' action went far beyond buses, yet these remembrances are appropriate. The civil-rights work that preceded the Montgomery bus boycott was focused on legal remedies to Jim Crow; and Parks herself had joined the movement by raising funds for the Scottsboro Boys' defense in the 1930s. But with the beginning of the boycott, which coincided with Parks' trial, the movement literally spread from the courtroom to the streets. Most of Montgomery's 40,000 black commuters walked miles to work and miles more to organizing meetings at night.


In 1950s Montgomery, Parks would've faced discrimination nearly everywhere: at restaurants, movie theaters and, of course, at work. The day of her arrest, she'd been hurrying home to prepare for a youth civil-rights workshop: Why, instead, did Parks make that bus ride her next civil-rights act?


Answers Richard LeGrand, a Hill District transit activist, "You take away my ability to get to work, what else do you take away? My livelihood, my dignity, my personhood. You have to keep that circle unbroken."


As the rich get richer and the middle class disappears, public transit is one of the few things keeping the working class among the working. The bus is "survival," says East Hills custodian and security guard Charles Edward Fitzpatrick Jr., who rides the bus to his two Downtown jobs most days. "You've got to work to eat."

And yet, here as in most cities, transit is threatened by auto-myopia. Today, blacks and whites aren't riding in different parts of the bus, but often in different vehicles altogether. While many blacks are bound to the bus, suburban whites have comfy commuter rails -- in Pittsburgh, it's the Upper Saint Clair-bound T versus the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway -- and, worse, private vehicles, which have literally put miles between the car-driving suburbanites and the inner city.

In Save Our Transit founder Steve Donahue's native Baton Rouge -- like Fitzpatrick's hometown of Nashville and Rosa Parks' adopted Motor City -- sparse service makes transit a last resort, leading to neglect as "politicians look at it like food stamps," Donahue says, as if "people who ride it are somehow defective."

Even here, where service is better, Donahue says, "I had someone ask me yesterday, 'Are there a lot of black people on the bus?' I said, 'Yeah, but [passengers are] mixed.' At least we have integrated rush hours!

"Most of the white people I know just use the bus to get to their jobs, but a lot of people, black and white, need the bus to get everywhere they can't walk. On the 86B Frankstown on a Saturday, sometimes I'll be the only white person."

If the Port Authority's state funding crisis isn't over before its emergency funding runs out in 2006, we may see the return of threats to eliminate evening and weekend service, which would hurt the poor, not the middle-class, and disproportionately more blacks. "It's not just an inconvenience," Donahue says, "it impacts people's ability to put food on the table. Rosa Parks responded to the circumstances of her day. If she were young and still riding the bus today, how would she respond?"

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