Dr. King and Transit: Enduring Symbols of Freedom
Op-Ed January 15, 2017
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be 88 today. He would no doubt be remembering events more than 60 years ago that launched him as a champion of civil rights; events that revolve around public transportation.
Rosa Parks’ arrest December 1, 1955 sparked a 13 month bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama that marked the beginning of the civil rights movement that reached its peak in the 60s. Dr. King described his memoir of the Montgomery bus boycott Stride Toward Freedom as ‘‘the chronicle of 50,000… who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love, and who in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth’’.
Many do not know the roots of the boycott actually began years before Rosa Parks was arrested. The Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of black professionals founded in 1946, had already begun to address the Jim Crow practices on Montgomery’s buses. Its president, Jo Ann Robinson, had suffered a humiliating experience in 1949 when she was ordered off the bus for sitting in the fifth row on a nearly empty bus. Finally in a 1954 meeting with Mayor Gayle, the group listed the changes they sought: no one standing over empty seats; a decree that black individuals not be made to pay at the front of the bus and enter from the rear; and a policy that would require buses to stop at every corner in black residential areas, as they did in white communities.
One can hardly imagine a transit system today that stops in most residential areas, much less every block. But I digress.
Their concerns were ignored. A year later 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for challenging segregation on a Montgomery bus. Seven months after that, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested for failing to yield her seat to a white passenger. It took the arrest of Rosa Parks, one of the most esteemed members of the community, to spark action.
Robinson and the WPC responded by securing Parks bail, calling for a bus boycott December 5, printing and distributing leaflets and contacting local leaders. One of them was Dr. King. Amazingly, 90% of Montgomery’s black citizens stayed off the bus that day. That afternoon the Montgomery Improvement Association was formed, the boycott extended and Dr. King selected its leader. The Civil Rights Movement was born and the rest is history. All those years ago, the access to equitable bus service was a symbol of freedom. And it remains so today.
In an era of astronomically rising prices for life’s necessities and stagnant wages, access to affordable public transportation is key. In The Atlantic’s article Stranded: How America’s Failing Public Transportation Increases Inequality” Gillian B. White writes: “Transportation is about more than just moving people from point A to point B. It’s also a system that can either limit or expand the opportunities available to people…” http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/05/stranded-how-americas-failing-public-transportation-increases-inequality/393419/
Rosabeth Moss Kanter cited several studies in her piece published in the Boston Globe: “Public transit can be a ride out of poverty. The cities identified by Raj Chetty, an economics professor at Harvard University, as having the highest chances for a person moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of income across generations are the cities ranked as having the best public transportation, as my research found…
…Access is the ticket. People from neighborhoods that lack reliable transportation are stuck and can’t find opportunity. For example, Chicago ranks sixth in public transit in general but 53d out of the 100 largest US metropolitan areas in labor market access, with only 22.8 percent of residents able to reach their jobs using public transit in 90 minutes or less, according to a Brookings Institution study, which accounts for especially high unemployment in underserved neighborhoods.”
These and other facts about the state of public transportation across the country today, and here in Hampton Roads, make Dr. King’s words that December 5, 1955 even more poignant today: “I’ve never been on a bus…. But I would be less than a Christian if I stood back and said, because I don’t ride the bus, I don’t have to ride a bus, that it doesn’t concern me. I will not be content. I can hear a voice saying, “If you do it unto the least of these, my brother, you do it unto me.”
Happy Birthday Dr. King, the work continues.
For more on the Montgomery Bus Boycott: http://www.blackpast.org/1955-martin-luther-king-jr-montgomery-bus-boycott#sthash.r8bdeOay.dpuf