- Historic Sites
The Power Of 2857
Fifty years ago this December, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus she was riding. Because she wouldn’t, the whole country has changed. But what happened to the bus?
November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
In May 2000 the Williamses tried selling the bus on eBay, with a minimum bid of $100,000. There were no takers.
People were interested but not interested enough to do much of anything. Indeed, few physical artifacts or sites of the civil rights movement received any attention at all until the 1980s. Perhaps any interested blacks were too busy consolidating the progress made during the movement, while Southern whites had little enthusiasm for commemorating what many of them considered moments of disgrace and defeat. Perhaps the history was just too new to be considered history.
Eventually, public efforts to commemorate the movement stirred. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter signed a bill creating the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Historic Site in Atlanta. In 1991 the National Civil Rights Museum opened on the site of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King had been assassinated in 1968. The arrest of Rosa Parks and the subsequent boycott were featured in the exhibits. Museum planners in Memphis worked closely with Montgomery veterans such as the attorney Fred Gray and were aware of Summerford’s buses. But there was no solid evidence linking one of them to the Bus Boycott, so a similar vehicle was acquired and restored to resemble a Montgomery bus of the era. The museum quickly became a landmark, drawing pilgrimages of schoolchildren and families eager to see in person what they had seen in a famous photograph, the balcony where King had fallen, and to gain some perspective on those violent years.
In the mid-1990s the focus shifted back to Montgomery. Troy University, about 50 miles from Montgomery, had purchased the Empire Theater, which sat at the corner where Rosa Parks had been arrested and was best known as the place where the country singer Hank Williams had made a name for himself. The university announced plans to raze it and build a parking structure. That just didn’t seem right, and the public criticism was scorching. The university quickly changed its plans; a library and museum named after Rosa Parks seemed more acceptable for the site. Groundbreaking took place in 1998 and the museum opened in 2000. The museum planners approached Hubert Summerford’s daughter and son-in-law, to whom the bus had descended upon Hubert’s death. Donnie and Vivian Williams had been busy raising a family of three and running their small grocery store. They held on to Hubert’s words: “That bus will be important to somebody someday; it’s a part of history.”
By this time Mrs. Parks was commonly referred to as “the mother of the civil rights movement” and Faith Ringgold had just published a popular children’s book, If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks . The bus itself had suffered from its three decades in the field. It was badly rusted in spots, the tires were rotting, and many windows had been shattered by bullets idly fired over the years. But it had survived.
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University officials who offered Vivian and Donnie Williams $10,000 for the shell of the old bus felt they were making a fair offer; since the Williamses still had no tangible evidence that this was the actual bus and the museum would have to spend thousands more to make it exhibitable. Donnie and Vivian said no, somewhat offended that the veracity of their family’s story was questioned again and certain that the real Rosa Parks bus was worth more. Like the National Civil Rights Museum, the Rosa Parks Museum had to make do with a bus typical of the era. Donnie and Vivian were approached by state and city officials; the Smithsonian Institution even called to offer advice, but no one offered to pay the full cost of history as Donnie and Vivian calculated it.
With their curiosity piqued—and encouraged by friends and enthralled with their first computer—in May 2000 the Williamses tried selling the bus on eBay. The initial listing caused an uproar. Described as “The Rosa Parks City Line Montgomery Ala. Bus” and with a $100,000 minimum bid, the entry was immediately challenged. Ray White, the university administrator responsible for overseeing construction of the new museum, confirmed that his people had “done all kinds of research … and never found anyone who knows exactly what bus she was on,” while the attorney Fred Gray doubted that anyone knew where the original bus might be. There were no bidders.
As with nearly anything relating to Rosa Parks, the story received national attention. It caught the eye of Robert Lifson, president of MastroNet, Inc., a Chicago-based auction business, and a self-acknowledged political-history junkie. Lifson made an offer: He would conduct his own research into the provenance of the bus if he could be the one to put it up at public auction. The Williamses agreed.