An act of courage leads to civil rights

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(Editor’s note: Richard Melzer is a member of the Belen Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Commission. The national MLK Commission was created by the King family.)

Photos courtesy of Richard Melzer: The U.S. Post Office recently issued a commemorative stamp, above, with Rosa Parks’ image to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Historians have different opinions about when the civil rights movement began in the United States.

Some say it began when Marian Anderson, a talented black opera singer, sang the national anthem before 75,000 people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she had been barred from singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at Washington’s Constitution Hall in 1939.

Other historians claim that Jackie Robinson’s courageous breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball’s 1947 season was the true start of the modern civil rights movement.

A strong case could also be made that the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision, Linda Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education (1954), which ended segregation in public schools, was the movement’s real beginning.

And then there are those who contend that Rosa Parks’s heroic act on a cold winter night in 1955 deserves credit as the impetus for a movement that swept the nation, leading to the passage of two constitutional amendments (numbers 23 and 24) and two major civil rights acts in the 1960s.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Rosa Louise McCauley Parks’s birth on Feb. 4, 1913.

Parks was born and raised in Alabama, where she attended a segregated school and witnessed violent intimidation by white supremacists. Her grandfather once stood on his front lawn with a shotgun at the ready as members of the local KKK marched down his street.

By 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks was married and working as a seamstress in a Montgomery, Ala., department store. As usual, she boarded Bus No. 2857 on her regular route home.

According to Alabama state law, black passengers had to sit in the back of all buses, while whites sat in the front. She sat in the back, just behind the 10 seats reserved for whites.

Laws that segregated the races were known as Jim Crow laws. There seemed to be a Jim Crow to separate whites from blacks in every public institution, from restaurants and hotels to schools and movie theaters.

All forms of transportation, including public buses, were also subject to Jim Crow laws.

Bus No. 2857 began to fill quickly with rush-hour passengers on Dec. 1, 1955. When all the seats reserved for whites had been taken, bus driver Joseph Blake ordered four black passengers, including Parks, to relinquish their seats so that whites could sit.

Three of the black riders moved. Rosa Parks refused. Some said that she refused to move simply because she was physically tired after a hard day at work.

Parks corrected this notion, saying she wasn’t physically tired. She was tired of giving in.

Responding to Park’s act of defiance, bus driver Blake stopped his bus and called the police. Two police officers, F.B. Day and D.W. Mixon, responded to the call and took her into custody.

Old photographs show Parks being fingerprinted, photographed (mug shot No. 7053) and booked as a common criminal at the local police station. Her arrest report listed her “nationality” as “negro.”

She was released on bail that night. A 30-minute trial four days later led to her conviction. Park’s punishment: a $10 fine plus $4 in court fees.

The 5-foot, 3-inch tall woman gained national attention for her bold act of defiance. Black leaders organized a highly effective boycott of the Montgomery bus system.

Spearheaded by a previously unknown 26-year-old minister named Martin Luther King Jr., the boycott lasted 381 days, making it one of the longest, most successful acts of civil disobedience in American history.

The bus Parks was riding in when she refused to give up her seat in 1955 was bought at auction for $492,000 by the Henry Ford Museum of Dearborn, Mich.

The city of Montgomery finally ended the prolonged protest by discontinuing its segregated bus policies in late 1956. A suit brought to the Supreme Court ended with a decision that struck down the Montgomery ordinance as unconstitutional.

Rosa Parks and the bus boycott inspired millions of minority men and women who realized that non-violent protests could bring about major changes and needed reforms. Parks became known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”

But her contribution came at great personal cost. She and her husband lost their jobs and had to start their lives anew by moving to Detroit, Mich., in 1957.

Over the years, Parks was honored in many ways. She received the NAACP’s highest award as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the 1990s.

Last February, her life-size statue was unveiled in Statuary Hall in the U.S. capitol; she is the first black woman honored with a statue in the hall.

Rosa Parks died at the age of 92 in 2005. Her body lay in state at the national Rotunda in Washington, D.C. She was the first woman to lie in state there, an honor usually reserved for presidents and lawmakers. An estimated 50,000 admirers filed by her casket in a final salute to her bravery.

The post office recently issued a commemorative stamp with her image to celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth.

But what became of Bus No. 2857? If Rosa Parks was the main character in this racial drama, the bus she rode was clearly her unintended stage.

It appears that the General Motors-built bus, which had entered the Montgomery bus fleet in 1954, was finally retired from service in the early 1970s. The vehicle was eventually bought by Herbert Summerford, who realized its importance but kept it in his backyard, using it as a convenient place to store tools and lumber. The seats were gone, the windows were smashed and the old engine was missing.

Summerford died in 1986, leaving the famous but decaying bus to his daughter and son-in-law, Vivian and Donnie Williams. The couple tried to sell the bus on eBay, with a minimum bid of $100,000 in 2000.

Nobody bid. People were not convinced this was really “Rosa Parks’s bus.” Extensive documentation to authenticate the property would be necessary before serious bidding could begin.

Robert Lifson of the online auction company MasterNet was willing to do the legwork to prove the Williams’ bus was in fact No. 2857. Lifson used various clues, including the bus’s most distinctive feature: Its automatic shift was left of the steering wheel when most are to the right.

With this proof, MasterNet opened its auction on Oct. 25, 2001. The bidding went on till 2 a.m., with as many as 45 bidders in the competition, including the city of Denver and the Smithsonian Institute. The $492,000 winning bid was from the Henry Ford Museum of Dearborn, Mich. It may well be the most expensive bus ever purchased in the United States.

The bus was transported to its new home on an 18-wheel semi. Rosa Parks was among those who greeted it at the museum. Much work needed to be done to restore the largely rusted-out, neglected artifact.

By the time it was over, the Henry Ford Museum had spent as much money on the restoration job as it had spent in the purchase.

My wife and I were visiting my son and his family in Michigan last January when we used a rainy day to visit the Henry Ford Museum, a place I had always wanted to see. I had hoped for a great display of Model T’s and Model A’s, progressing to the Edsels of the 1950s and the Mustangs of the 1960s.

I was not disappointed in what we saw. In fact, there was much more than I had expected. Several presidential cars were on display as well as other historically significant vehicles the museum had acquired at great expense over the years.

There was even an old Ford pickup truck with a sign that advertised the Unser family’s “motor company” at 7700 Central SW in Albuquerque.

I was most surprised to turn a corner and find Bus No. 2857. I had not known of the odyssey that had brought the famous bus to the museum.

In a thrilling moment, I climbed on board, trying to imagine what it had been like for Rosa Parks when she boarded that same vehicle on a seemingly normal winter evening in 1955.

I wondered if she had noticed a telling “Watch Your Step” sign hanging near the driver’s seat when she paid her fare. I sat in the very seat that Rosa Parks was asked to surrender but would not.

After many years of hearing about this bus and teaching my students its significance in history, I felt a surge of historical adrenaline, if there is such a thing. I didn’t try to hide my big old grin.

Just yards from Bus No. 2857, the museum had another significant, but eerie item on display.

As part of its civil rights collection, the museum chose to display a KKK garment, much like the robes worn by members of the KKK who had marched down Parks’s street in Alabama.

Seeing it, I was first repulsed and then upset that such a symbol of hate had been placed so close to a great symbol of hope and pride in our history.

Then I realized what museum curators had attempted to do. It is important to celebrate the many victories of the civil rights movement, but it is also important to remember all the racist hate and violence that had yet to be overcome if the movement was to succeed.

Rosa Parks was a hero not only because she refused to surrender her rights on a city bus. She was also a hero because she refused to back down in the face of potential danger to herself and her loved ones in the ensuing months and years.

The first step in a battle is always the toughest one to take. Only the bravest, be it Marian Anderson, Jackie Robinson, Linda Brown, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks, can be counted on to move forward with non-violent resolve in the face of violent resistance.

None of these heroes came first. They, and millions of unsung heroes like them, moved forward together, gaining ground and making progress toward our still-elusive goal of civil rights for all American citizens.

No one should have to fear facing men in foolish costumes, threats of violence and unfair rules of exclusion again.