When planning a day at the Henry Ford Museum, there was one thing I really wanted to do. I wanted to have a few uninterrupted minutes on the Rosa Parks bus.
To make this wish a reality, I was there when they opened and then headed straight for this exhibit.
For the benefit of my international friends, Rosa Parks was a pioneer in the American Civil Rights movement. In 1955, when segregation ruled the American south, she refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. The police were called and this mild mannered African American seamstress was led off to jail.
She became the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott which lasted for over a year and forced the desegregation of the city’s buses.
The Henry Ford Museum confirmed the authenticity of the bus and outbid some major players (including the Smithsonian) to the tune of $492,000. However, after sitting outside for about thirty years, the bus required a massive restoration project that cost another $300,000. As you can tell, they really wanted to preserve this piece of history.
And honestly, they did a great job.
Sitting there, I kept thinking it could be 1955 just as easily as it was 2019. The bus is immaculate but it’s not just a museum piece. You are welcomed aboard and invited to sit a while. You can even sit in her seat.
The docent was good at his job, answering my questions and relating the story for me. He even took my picture.
However, he also gave me time to sit quietly and absorb the magnitude of this space and of the actions of one woman, who on that one day, said enough is enough. History was made with that split second decision, made under the glare of a white driver who was known for being unfriendly to his black passengers on a good day.
A hastily organized boycott crippled the city bus system and forced changes into law. She wasn’t seeking fame or money or publicity of any kind. She didn’t appreciate the attention she received but later said she was just tired of giving in.
With all that is happening in our country today and with leaders who seem to encourage the divide between races, there was something reassuring about sitting in her seat. It was a great reminder that a 42 year old seamstress could start a revolution because she was tired of giving in.
The moment felt both sacred and peaceful.
I had that bus all to myself for several minutes before anyone else arrived and I was grateful for every passing second. Still, it was gratifying to walk by later in the day to find the bus full of a diverse group of people who wanted to have the experience too.
The bus is part of a larger exhibit that covers segregation and the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. At the same time the museum bought the bus, they also acquired a scrapbook containing a number of news clippings you can read. There are some interactive features here and some truly disturbing things including a flier for a cross burning that sounds like an invitation to a Sunday school picnic rather than a hate rally.
I felt sorrow that our country hasn’t advanced more than it has and I felt gratitude for the progress we have made, even knowing there are plenty of people who would look at such hateful materials and think they’re ok.
If you find your way to the Henry Ford Museum, make time for this exhibit. Read the materials, watch the videos, listen to the songs and think about what it all means.
Sixty-five years ago sounds like a long time but it isn’t that long at all. We have plenty of people living in this country today who remember all too well not being allowed to eat in a restaurant, drink from a water fountain or use a waiting room because of the color of their skin.
After Rosa Parks stood up for her beliefs by sitting down, close to another decade passed before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law changing all of that for good.
But while the law guarantees equality, racial divide is still far too great in this country. I’m as white as can be and I do not take responsibility for things that happened before me but I do think it’s my right and duty to contribute something positive to the world I live in now. I can’t change the past but I can help change the future by showing kindness and empathy and by celebrating our similarities rather than complain about the differences.
The last words today go to Rosa herself.
“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… so other people would be also free.”