Back to the Back of the Bus | The Nation


Back to the Back of the Bus

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Montgomery, Alabama

About the Author

JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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No one remembers exactly, but it was some time after the law came down desegregating recreational facilities here that the swimming pools in Oak Park were locked up. Then they were filled in, grassed over, and now you wouldn't know that pools had ever been there. Arlam Carr Jr. had lived just across the street, but he and his siblings, like all the black children of Montgomery--like all the black people of Montgomery, excepting the nannies taking white children out for a stroll--couldn't set foot in the park, couldn't look at the alligators in its fine little zoo either. Most white people are gone from the Oak Park area now. So are the alligators. The whites-only schools that Arlam Jr., with the help of the courts, busted open in 1964 while still a teenager are effectively blacks-only today. In this city that owes its place in contemporary history to a bus boycott for desegregation, begun here forty-five years ago this December 5, the same is true for the buses, if you can find them.

Bus stops don't announce themselves in Montgomery. There are no signs, no shelters, no maps posted on the street. There are only three fixed routes, down from thirty-six in the 1980s. You have to know where to stand for a bus, or catch sight of one and flag it down, or call in advance for a minibus and hope to get on a schedule. If it's a weekend, or nighttime, or morning before 6; if the schedules are too full, or the bus driver isn't accommodating, or you don't have a phone, you're out of luck. There used to be a transfer station downtown, a central hub where all the buses circulated, but that was removed a few years ago. Now it's just a grassy knoll with a Bible under Plexiglas and a historical marker noting Montgomery's distinction as the first city in the Western Hemisphere to have, in 1886, an entirely electrified public trolley system.

A turn of the century later, "public transport" means poor people's last resort. Just so no one misses the point, only one bus here has a dedicated route to the heart of town, but every bus will get you to the county health and welfare offices. The central transfer station is just next door. Montgomery, population 322,000, is a microcosm of the country in this sense. Nationwide, in places with populations of a million or less, more than half the people who use public transit make under $15,000 a year; nearly 60 percent of transit riders are minorities. Almost everywhere cities have cut service, raised fares, starved their systems. Some people in Montgomery are battling back, but they have to undo decades of damage. Median household income here is around $30,000 and most city dwellers don't own cars. Yet despite the vast potential ridership, only about 3 percent of people with jobs used the buses in 1990, and many say they wouldn't dream of riding one today. Stigma is written in concrete and steel at the transfer station, a long, narrow shed set back from the road on barren ground behind a chain-link fence edged with barbed wire. Local transport activists express faint relief that at least the razor wire, there until recently, has been removed.

In 1953, when Rose Zell Lawrence, then in her early 20s, arrived in Montgomery from the cotton fields of Lowndes County, it seemed everyone rode the buses to work, separate and unequal. She took the early bus out to Bankhead, where she kept house and raised the children for a prominent white family. "I would mostly sit in the back and pull the cord," she says. "I knew where the people got off at, and they say to me, 'Don't let me pass my stop!' They called me Rose the Caller." It went on like that until Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, until the famous meeting at Holt Baptist Church where the great labor fighter and NAACP leader E.D. Nixon introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the world, where the Montgomery Improvement Association was born and so too the boycott. For 381 days black people walked to work, or went to the Posey Parking Lot where the movement ran a carpool station for a time, or telephoned organizers who directed them to rides. Rose Lawrence often walked the two to three miles to Bankhead, chatting up so many others she met along the way that she'd forget how long she had been walking.

The success of the bus boycott was the beginning of the end for the Old South. Today's system is a spawn of the New South, which is not so much new or distinctly Southern as it is an accommodation to the all-American way of racism--bigotry muffled for the sake of business, white privilege wrapped in the language of investment. As elsewhere across the country, whites in Montgomery abandoned the urban center and its services. With budgets shrinking, neglect of city schools, hospitals and transit could proceed as a "cost-benefit" decision.

From 1977 to 1999 a white bully-boy Republican named Emory Folmar was mayor, and he made the bus system scream. Lawrence says things just gradually disappeared. Advertising income disappeared after Folmar tried to bar an anti-death penalty ad and then decided that if he couldn't discriminate among advertisers he wouldn't have any at all. By the fortieth anniversary of the bus boycott, service had been cut by 70 percent and fares had doubled, to $1.50. Student and old-age discounts were eliminated. In 1996 midday service stopped. Finally, in 1997, the City Council said there just weren't enough riders or revenue; the traditional system of big buses and fixed routes was finished. As Jon Broadway, an environmental engineer and a leader of the Montgomery Transportation Coalition, put it, "If you choke a dog long enough, it'll die."

Rose Lawrence comes near to weeping when she talks of the decision. The "family" of riders, the system of easy transfers and the culture of urban mobility it fostered--"that's all gone now." She still works for the same family out in Bankhead, but now she gets there by DART--Demand and Response Transit, a dial-a-ride system of sixteen-seat minibuses that the Council instituted in 1997. It takes Lawrence, and anyone who, like her, has a standing appointment, virtually door to door to and from work every day. Impromptu trips are more troublesome. Passengers are supposed to book twenty-four hours in advance. Once, she called for a bus home from a doctor's office; 4 pm, the bus came, but the driver couldn't fit in her stop until after he'd dropped off all the scheduled passengers. Normally a twenty-minute ride, it took two hours.

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