- 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
The MSX staffers took on the assignment with great vigor. It was unlike anything else they had done (which included high-tech concept cars and the tour vehicles for a ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom). In the process, they were surprised to encounter responses suggesting that the memory of this 50-year-old event still draws visceral opposition. Told of the reason for requesting 1948 bus parts, some individuals responded with enthusiasm. But enough were silent or refused to return calls that the MSX staff stopped referring to Rosa Parks and merely asked about parts for a vintage GM bus.
Of course, the seats were a major interest. Could we find the original ones after 30 years in that Alabama ravine? A personal inspection of the ground and discussions with local residents convinced me that they could not be located. The place had been used as a landfill for those 30 years, and the seat frames were buried and likely twisted into unrecognizable shapes. Salvaged frames and reproduction seats with modern leatherette upholstery would have to suffice. A blow to authenticity, perhaps, but one that would make it easier to allow everyone to sit on the bus.
The paint scheme or “livery” was another concern. The restored buses in Montgomery and Memphis wear a dark forest green along with white and yellow. The paint chips uncovered on this bus were far lighter. Fortunately, we were able to confirm the color through a 1956 color postcard showing lime green buses on Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue and the reminiscences of Jesse Daniels, a museum staff member who participated in the boycott. In the end we estimate that 75 percent of the bus is still the original material, 15 percent comes from other buses of the era, and just 10 percent is modern.
The restored bus made its debut on February 1, 2003. The keynote presentation was made by Jesse Daniels. Born and raised in Montgomery, Daniels had been a 19-year-old college student at the time of the boycott. He told of the meaningfully mundane aspects of his boycott experiences: the ever-present police, the inconvenience of having to walk to his girlfriend’s house, the constant fundraising to support the cause, and the thrill of his family dressing in their Sunday best to ride integrated buses the next December.
African-Americans old enough to remember Jim Crow have been moved to tears by the bus. Perhaps the most evocative moment came when an elderly black woman refused to heed museum staff requests not to enter the bus during its one-day showing before the restoration, “No honky from Dearborn is going to keep me off this bus,” she said.
The bus remains contested space. It was segregated and then desegregated. It was James Blake’s bus, but now it is the Rosa Parks bus. Actually, it became the Rosa Parks bus in 1971, when its owners confirmed its power by trying to destroy it. Hubert Summerford and Vivian and Donnie Williams saved the icon by hiding it in plain sight. Like Rosa Parks, it is unremarkable in appearance yet spiritual in effect.
Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, writes that an icon is the result of “extraordinary natural, supernatural, divine or superhuman circumstances… . The closer believers are to the icon, the more they participate with or engage it and the more they are touched by its power—which may be transformative.” As thousands of people will attest, sitting on that bus is anything but mundane. Asked by a group of energetic third-graders if the bus really could talk as Faith Ringgold’s book suggested, I invited them to sit quietly, close their eyes, imagine Rosa Parks gently but firmly insisting on respect and equality, and then listen.