Thursday, December 01, 2005

Sit-down Strike

A reporter and a photographer from the Ann Arbor News rode the AATA number 3 bus to Ypsilanti to document and get reactions to AATA's commemoration of Rosa Parks' refusal to ride in the seat from the back of the Montgomery bus. As you may recall, upon Parks' death there was a great deal of emphasis placed upon the inspirational power of a working class seamstress' seeming decision that she was simply tired -- that practical concerns and common sense triumphed over a heritage of segregation. Part of the power and romance of this interpretation, to be sure, was that an average person could, with a simple gesture, spark a revolution that would overturn decades of egregiously racist public policy (and with it, culturally embedded segregationist biases). It has since been pretty well documented that Parks' demonstration was a conscious political gesture, planned, promoted, and rallied around for maximal effect; Parks herself, was a longtime grassroots activist. (Kelly Quinn, Sojourner Truth Fellow at TCAUP, has unearthed a letter from 1955 from the city's black community to city leaders, detailing their main complaints about treatment of Montgomery blacks).

For me, the irony that popular media and perception miss is that the buses were and are institutions that promoted economic equity, helping overcome the "spatial mismatch" between residence and work so often seen in urban areas. In so many cases, institutions of mass transit are under attack or are wilting from neglect -- how long will that #3 bus continue to go all the way to Ypsilanti, with the city's financial woes? As we celebrate Parks' inspirational act from 50 years ago, are we turning our backs on today's seamstresses, janitors, teachers' assistants, and food service workers (whatever their race)?

I hope not, but I fear so.


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