“Whites would accuse you of causing trouble when all you were doing was acting like a normal human being instead of cringing,” Rosa Parks explained. “You didn’t have to wait for a lynching.” Such were the assumptions of black deference that pervaded mid-20th century Montgomery, Ala. The bus with its visible arbitrariness and expected servility stood as one of the most visceral experiences of segregation. “You died a little each time you found yourself face to face with this kind of discrimination,” she noted.
Blacks constituted the majority of bus riders, paid the same fare, yet received inferior and disrespectful service — often right in front of and in direct contrast to white riders. “I had so much trouble with so many bus drivers,” Parks recalled. That black people comprised the majority of riders made for even more galling situations on the bus. Some routes had very few white passengers yet the first 10 seats on every bus were always reserved for whites. Thus, on many bus routes, black riders would literally stand next to empty seats. Those blacks able to avoid the bus did so, and those who had the means drove cars. Black maids and nurses, however, were allowed to sit in the white section with their young or sick white charges, further underscoring the ways that bus segregation marked status and the convenience of white needs, and did not simply regulate proximity.
Because Montgomery saw itself as a more cosmopolitan city than some of its Southern neighbors, signs or screens separating the black and white sections were no longer used. It was a “matter of understanding [of] what seats we may use and may not use,” Parks explained, with the power and discretion, particularly over the middle seats, “left up to the driver.” “The bus driver could move colored people anywhere he wanted on the bus,” Nixon reiterated, “because he was within his rights under a city ordinance.” The arbitrariness of segregation, the power and place it granted white people, was perhaps nowhere more evident that on the bus.
Some bus drivers were kinder, remembered Rosalyn Oliver King and Doris Crenshaw, letting black passengers sit in the white seats while they drove through the black parts of town. But the minute they crossed into a white neighborhood, most drivers would tell the black passengers to get up. “There were times when I’d be on the bus” Parks recalled, “and if what they called ‘White section” or “White Reserved seats” were occupied and any white people were standing, they would just stand.” But kindness did not undermine the force and legal basis of segregation. The majority of drivers made black passengers stand over open seats and forced them to pay and re-board through the back door so they would not even walk next to white passengers. Jo Ann Robinson recalled the demeaning terms often used in addressing African American women — “Black nigger,” “black bitches,” “heifers,” and “whores.” Dr. King elaborated: “‘Go on round the back door, N—r.’ ‘Give up that seat, boy.’ ‘Get back, you ugly black apes. …I’m gonna show you niggers that we got laws in Alabama.’ ‘N—r, next time you stand up over those white people I’m gonna throw you over to the law.’ ‘I hat N—rs. …Y’all black cows and apes, git back.’” For Rosa Parks the education young children received in mores of segregation was the “most painful,” as she hated to see children take an empty seat only to have their parents snatch them up and hurry them to the back before they got in trouble.
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