After two days visiting some of the most solemn ground in America - Birmingham, AL and the Civil Rights Institute yesterday, the Lorraine Motel and National Civil Rights Museum today - I don't know when I'll get time to write all the sites have moved me to think. But I do want to post quickly on some observations about Rosa Parks and her 1955 act of defiance that launched a civil rights revolution.
One of the National Civil Rights Museum's most powerful exhibits is a re-creation of the bus on which Rosa Parks committed her act of civil disobedience. The exhibit goes into great detail about what occurred that day. Interesting enough, the words "My feet are tired" never appear. That quote, which I don't doubt Ms. Parks said at some point, is a hallowed one in many history texts. Both sarcastic and pragmatic, it's a great snapshot for students and casual observers of that moment in history.
However, what Rosa Parks said was, I think more defiant: When asked to vacate her seat, she insisted she wouldn't because she paid her fare just like anyone else. (The "My feet are tired" line must have come in one of her countless interviews after the incident.)
Her protest was even more nuanced, and more thoughtful. Parks was sitting in a row four seats across in the middle of the bus. At the beginning of the incident, all four of those seats were occupied by black passengers. One white man boarded the bus and no seats were available. However, custom dictated that a white passenger couldn't sit in the same row as blacks, therefore all four of the passengers in Parks' row (Parks included) were expected to leave the seats. The other three did, Rosa did not.
Wow! Makes me think of a sermon I heard nearly two decades ago about what Jesus really meant by turn the other cheek: namely that custom in Palestine at His time dictated a superior could only hit an inferior with the palm of his right hand (therefore, "turning the other cheek" forced the superior to either violate custom or look foolish in hitting the inferior). Is this what Parks did just for a moment? Before surrendering her seat, was she daring the white man to sit in the row with her, implicitly acknowledging some degree of equality or fellow humanity? Was she calling out his masculinity by seeing if he would insist that four (at least three women) blacks vacate seats for him? I imagine there must have been a gleam in her eye in those first moments after she refused the bus driver's demand that she leave the seat.
One other note: black passengers were prohibited from entering the bus by the front. They had to enter the front door to pay their fare, then step off the bus, then walk along the right side to the doors about 2/3 the way to the rear. In fact, this rear door was the boundary between white and black seating. Black passengers were allowed to take seats ahead of the door if seats were not used by white customers and if the colored section was full.
The incident that happened in 1955 on that bus was more nuanced and deeper than popular memory remembers it (though memory remembers it as a powerful moment, no doubt). We often, though, in our popular memory simplify the tales, I guess so they can be more easily remembered. Heck, this post is taking a long time to flesh this out - no wonder we must simplify. But we are fortunate museums like the one I visited the last two days exist to teach those of us who want to go deeper into the richest moments from our past.