Rosa Parks (1913-2005) stood for what she believed in by not standing. She believed that segregated busing was wrong and took a seat. After a long, hard day at work, she remained seated even when a white passenger asked her to surrender her seat to him. That’s how she set in motion a series of events that helped kick-start the civil rights movement.
Now, 50 years later, passengers in Montgomery, Ala., can experience Parks’ bus ride, down many of the same streets she traveled. A 1956 General Motors transit bus rebuilt by CoachCrafters for the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. “We thought it would be a good idea to actually have a bus from that era that would operate in the streets of Montgomery as a commemorative piece,” said Tim Omick, general manager for the Montgomery Area Transit Services.
Once CoachCrafters was selected to re-create the bus in which Rosa Parks was arrested—a 1948 GMC—they faced the challenge of finding an original bus from that era. It didn’t seem an easy task; after all, they had to find a bus that would be, as CoachCrafters President Wayne Wolf said, older than the majority of their employees.
Not at lot of bus companies store old, non-operable buses that must vie for space with buses that run routes. But Dan Holter, general manager of Rochester City Lines in Minnesota, recognized the significance of his older buses and wanted to save them for preservation. When CoachCrafters asked if he knew where to get ahold of a 1950s model bus, Dan said, “I have one right here in the yard.” In fact, he had two 1956 GMCs. They were “sitting in mothballs,” he said, just “waiting for a historical use.”
With building blocks in hand, the CoachCrafters crew began making plans to achieve their mission: to create an authentic looking and feeling 1950s-era bus with 21st-century features and amenities, including handicap accessibility and air conditioning. “It was a very interesting thing to pull off,” said Roger Rehbein, a journeyman mechanic for CoachCrafters. “We spent many hours trying to figure it out.”
The crew began by stripping down the bus, replacing parts of its frame, upgrading the axles and performing cosmetic work. All the while they took care to preserve its authenticity, right down to having the original paint shipped in from Montgomery. The bus maintained an authentic feeling from the driver’s perspective as well. Buses from that era did not have power steering. “It takes a he-man to drive,” said Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright after taking the wheel. “Now I know why bus drivers in the old days had to be big and burly.”
The mayor had had an opportunity to drive the bus in the transit center parking lot before it was unveiled on Sept. 13, 2004. A few others were able to sneak a peek, too, as the bus made its way from Northfield, Minn., to Montgomery atop a flatbed trailer.
“We actually had some people follow it in, wanting to take pictures of it and take a look at it,” Omick said. “The way they’ve restored a bus that’s almost 50 years old to the condition they have,” Omick said, “one would almost think that you’ve been transported back in time and that this is a brand new bus.”
Called the “Historic Cleveland Avenue Bus,” this highly visible and symbolic commemorative bus is no freeloader: It earns its keep by serving a city route in the historic downtown area, a route not too different from the one Rosa Parks used in the 1950s. Montgomery is also using the bus in a school outreach program. “It feels like we’re creating an important part of history,” said Wolf. “We are very excited to be involved in this project.”
At the time of Rosa Parks’ arrest, buses in many cities were zoned by race. Oftentimes, the first section was reserved for whites, and the back section was reserved for blacks. Black riders would typically purchase their tickets at the front of the bus, exit, and re-enter through the back door. The middle section of the bus was called “no-man’s land.” This is where Rosa Parks sat on Dec. 1, 1955. Being a black passenger in no-man’s land meant you were required to give your seat to a white person if asked. Rosa Parks refused.
In reaction to her arrest for this “crime,” members of Montgomery’s black community, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to protest the city’s segregation laws. They began to organize a citywide boycott against Montgomery City Lines, the privately owned bus company that served the city. They distributed 40,000 brochures, and on Sunday, Dec. 4, black ministers throughout the city spread the word to their congregations.
The boycott began the following day and continued for one year, resulting in about a 90 percent decline in ridership among blacks, despite intense intimidation from elements of the white community. Blacks in carpools were repeatedly harassed, and bombs were set off at the houses of protest leaders. King was arrested for a minor speeding infraction and later faced conspiracy charges, as did other leaders of the movement.
The boycott ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation on public buses unconstitutional in November 1956.