Overhead electric wires powered a creaky trolley system in Atlanta at the time of my birth in 1950. Sparks would sometimes fly and pivoting connections would occasionally disengage, stalling coaches in the midst of traffic. A modern observer might wonder about the cost of infrastructure required for such a complex system, as others surely did at the time, but it represented progress and history has no other excuse than progress. It came soon with the introduction of gasoline fueled buses, long dark orange rectangular boxes with rounded edges trimmed in washed out yellow surrounding a narrow ribbon of windows.
These were the buses that also ran in Montgomery, Alabama when Rosa Parks famously all but shut that city’s system down by refusing to ride as a second class citizen. In an earlier day, Montgomery boasted the nation’s first electric trolley system that ferried white workers from streetcar neighborhoods a few blocks away. By the time Parks had grown sick and tired of moving to the back of the bus or standing to allow whites to sit, boycott planners realized that Montgomery was so compact there was no black neighborhood far enough from downtown that workers could not walk if absolutely necessary.
Atlanta was larger and more spread out. And more white people relied on public transportation there than in Montgomery. While it may not seem like justice to compare apples with oranges, Atlanta with Montgomery, both have history and justice calls for both to be heard.
It was on one of those electric trolleys before transition to buses that I first saw a racial demonstration with my own young eyes. Soon enough, in December 1955 and throughout 1956, Montgomery would bring images of racial conflict into living rooms throughout America, but I saw a glimpse not long before when, while paused at a service station, a trolley was inundated with buckets of water poured through open windows onto empty rear seats. Later, in the spring or summer of 1955, my father bought the family’s first television just in time to witness history being made in Montgomery with buses as a focal point.
But history is no more stationary than buses; everything moved forward, including black passengers. Soon, the struggle was expanded. I recall the owner’s segregationist screed taped to the windows of Leb’s Restaurant in Atlanta and groups of marching, singing protesters near City Hall, the state capitol and elsewhere. My family no longer lived in Atlanta but we visited often. Through television, Montgomery became a memory that morphed into Birmingham and Selma in that strange land of Alabama where nothing seemed right at all.
Buses in Atlanta changed in the meantime. By the mid-sixties, they were mostly a sleek new style dubbed “City Slicker,” bright orange with shiny trim and expansive windows. They were diesel powered and emitted a distinctive odor tolerated as a sign of progress. Atlanta was on the move. Montgomery, no so much, a backwater city in a backward state, a place where white residents were content to be anonymous — invisible even — to the rest of the country as long as the country left them alone.
For me, returning to live in Atlanta in 1966 was exciting. My family lived across the street from Grant Park along the Number 31 bus route that I frequently took to school and to a part-time job downtown. Those trips were an education in themselves. Just as I was growing up, so seemed to be the Americans I encountered on the buses, all of us working class together, black and white without resentment or fear of sitting next to each other or being crowded together in aisles during rush hour. I noticed, too, how bus drivers and passengers got to know each other in some sort of less than familial way that was nonetheless more than ordinary.
Frequency of contact. On an egalitarian basis. That’s important. I’ve noticed it often since then in other situations in other cities in work, in education, in social settings. When there is frequency, familiarity is there whether anyone is specifically aware of it or not, unless it is explicitly rejected for some apparently obtuse and likely nefarious reason. There was such a bus driver on the Number 31 route, an older white man who negated pleasantness so naturally that the humanity of humanity was suspect. But not overtly; stonily instead. From that man I learned that if sweetness can ripen with age, so can bitterness.
Being young and presumably as progressive as Atlanta itself, I had several other residences within the city before ironically moving to the opposite end of the Number 31 bus route where, in Morningside, I caught the bus into and out of downtown daily for years. By that point, Atlanta had overwhelmingly voted to establish MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, and with it, a fleet of new air-conditioned white buses emblazoned with its colorful logo. But not everything along the Number 31 route changed.
The bitter old bus driver had not yet retired and his bitterness was full to the brim. One day I was on his bus when it overflowed, giving rise to a regret I carry to this day.
It was the afternoon rush hour; I boarded the bus downtown at Five Points. Despite the time of day, there happened to be an empty seat near the front and I had just settled into it. Apparently, a truck was blocking the curb lane; in response, the bus driver moved into the center lane. But pulling even with the truck, he opened the doors and screamed a withering barrage of racial insults at the truck driver. Having lived in the South my entire life, as I imagine was the case with almost everyone on the bus, the word “nigger” was not unknown although used openly less frequently than popularly imagined. Racists typically don’t shout it. When living in small towns I had heard the word used casually in the presence of black men and women, usually matter-of-factly, but never loudly, never applied as an accusation, or the curse it really is.
The bitter old bus driver shouted something else at the truck driver, too, something that stung even more than “nigger,” calling the truck driver a “black ape.” It struck me as saying the truck driver was subhuman, a step too far even for a racist. Never mind that if the truck driver was a black ape the bus driver had to be a white ape. Racism is not known for logic.
The bus was silent after the driver’s outburst. Tensely, unnervingly quiet. Taut nerves and stiff, utterly motionless muscles quelled any inclination. But I quickly glanced at the black woman in the seat next to me as she stared straight ahead, her mind perhaps reeling but her body and face rigid with forced and doubtlessly practiced decorum. Every passenger was a captive of circumstances. Of mind. Of race. Of expectations. Of employment that numbed us to the possibility of initiative, that checked any propensity for breakout and bound us to the maintenance of restriction.
Still, an impulse almost seized me and I have forever since regretted not acting on it. By that point, the bus had moved ahead about another block and was across the street from the Equitable Building where MARTA had lately opened offices. It crossed my mind to pull the cord, to get off the bus at the next stop and petition MARTA to discipline the bitter old bus driver. I believe they would have because I suspect that there had been complaints from other riders and Atlanta, please remember, valued its positive image and made a fetish of its progress. That I did nothing haunted me ever since and I wonder to what extent my failure to act, although concerned and sympathizing, is a metaphor for white racial behavior in general that brings us lately to a new national precipice.
My failure to act when I knew I should is thoroughly consistent with being white. Conscience be damned, we do it all the time. We had rather sit still and be quiet. The most activity that white people ever seem to muster is to flee from black people. It was happening right then as I sat on that bus with the bitter old bus driver whose racism was allowed to erupt without consequence. As that unpublicized drama unfolded, white people, in a textbook example of eponymous flight, were moving out of the city that said it was “too busy to hate.” Once ensconced in far-flung suburbs, these white people ostensibly voted to keep MARTA out, while in reality they were barring black people from their neighborhoods that now extend for miles and miles from the city center.
Montgomery, meanwhile, was growing in much the same way. Although still much smaller, the script played out in like manner. But, like apples and oranges, there is a limit to the comparison. In yet another irony, I’ve been present in Montgomery to watch it play out for almost forty years during which time I have never been on a bus, not because white people don’t ride the bus in Montgomery but because nobody rides the bus in Montgomery if they can possibly avoid it. Whereas, within the city at least, routes in Atlanta are extensive and buses ply them frequently, in Montgomery, even as the city itself has expanded greatly, routes are less penetrating and the service very infrequent. They have hybrids and minibuses and handicap capability — none air-conditioned in a hot, humid climate — but few of them going frequently enough where people need to go. Montgomery doesn’t have enough riders to warrant more service or enough service to attract riders, a treadmill of an argument if there ever was one. There is a paucity of sidewalks, to boot.
If all of this seems like apples not comparing well to oranges, consider the economic unifier in the problems faced by people in both cities and the cultural bias, as well. One way or another, systematized repression claims equality because it is difficult for all poor and working people irrespective of color. It is the lie that defaces progress and keeps history where it has always been, calling, perpetually calling, for Rosa Parks. We should all now be Rosa Parks.
in the public domain by Michael Driver no rights reserved