Thursday, March 19, 2009

Winning the Battle and Losing the War

A few days ago, NPR had a story featuring a fascinating new book about Claudette Colvin, whose protest of bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama in March 1955 predated that of Rosa Parks by nine months. Colvin was only fifteen, while Parks was 42. In both cases, there were seats available for the white passengers, and other black passengers being forced to stand. Housewife Aurelia Browder was arrested in April of that year, and eighteen-year-old Mary Louise Smith was also arrested in October of that year. The choice to rally around Parks for the 381-day bus boycott was apparently a strategic one, as the boycott leaders felt that Parks had more "gravitas" than either Colvin (who had become pregnant in an alleged rape), Browder or Smith (whose father was rumored to be an alcoholic, although Smith claims that the rumors were untrue). However, Browder, Colvin and Smith became plaintiffs in the Browder vs. Gale lawsuit that ultimately outlawed segregation on buses in Alabama.

The story got me to thinking, "Whatever happened to the Montgomery bus system?" Interestingly, the Montgomery Area Transit System's History page has nothing about the boycott, but it talks about an interesting experiment in "demand and response transit" that led me to a 2000 article in the Nation magazine by Joann Wypijewski.

And that article leads me to this question. Colvin, Browder, Smith and Parks were all courageous leaders who saw injustice and refused to stand for it. They, and boycott leader E.D. Nixon, succeeded in ending segregation in the transit system, and inspired leaders across the country and around the world to end legal segregation in transit, in schools, in housing and in businesses and services.

Looking at the transportation system as a whole - including all the ways that people get from home to work, play, school and shopping - what did these leaders accomplish? I think it's fair to ask, because all these protests were planned and thought through, from Colvin being inspired by the work of Tubman and Truth before her, to Parks being the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, to Nixon choosing to focus on Parks rather than Colvin, Browder or Smith. They had goals in mind, and they set out to achieve them. Did they succeed?

1 comment:

Charles in Seattle said...

It might be helpful in answering your question if you provided what you understand to have been their goals rather than leaving the reader to wonder. Are you trying to make a point that isn't generally understood by the typical historical review of those events?