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Back to the Back of the Bus | The Nation

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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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We can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clearly marked lines, or we can remember that history is like desire.

Using sex as an excuse, Los Angeles has created a disciplinary limbo in which hundreds of teachers languish.

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.

Stories from DART drivers are worse, and have the rhythm of the job. Check out the morning's schedule: three pickups, 6:10 am. Just try to be in three places at one time. Fourth pickup, 6:13; late before the day begins. Drive along, dispatcher's on the radio: someone just called for a ride; find a way to squeeze her in. Start calculating, How many riders need to be at work by 6:30? How many more on the list? Can't be late but can't speed either. Another stop; another signal from the dispatcher. Got to make time. Beside the road, someone's waving and the rain is pouring down. "Where you going?" Look at the schedule, look at the watch, how many more? "OK get in." (Think, "You'll get there but God knows how you'll get back." Dispatcher says, "They'll have to tough it out.") Someone's asking a question; listen to the passenger, listen to the dispatcher, try to turn a corner; another stop, another pickup; worry about the passengers, worry about traffic. The schedule's always overbooked, and it's almost 6:30...

Joe Price, a driver thirty-three years, finally had enough and now runs his Friend-Tell-a-Friend grass-cutting business full time. Betty Taylor complained and was demoted to washing buses. Bennie Jackson, president of Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 765, was one of about a dozen union drivers fired over the past two years, and the local has lost almost every time it's gone to arbitration. It's a rare driver who works eight hours; most work only four, and everyone is looking for extra hours. At the end of a run, if a driver comes into the station late, he or she might be sent home or lose all chance for extra time. Ezra Harden, the union's recording secretary, drove the DART last year, and the stress landed him in the hospital. Now he drives one of the 1970s-era fixed-route buses and agrees with Joe Price that "Montgomery shouldn't have to endure this."

Montgomery took one step for change last year. It elected a new mayor, Bobby Bright, a white Democrat who promised racial unity and restored bus service. Bright had support from the Montgomery Transportation Coalition, including Local 765, the Montgomery Improvement Association and other grassroots groups, and it's a mark of how bad things were that the current crazy-quilt service is seen as a step up. Now, DART is to be phased out as fixed routes expand, but there's no timetable or ready money. Discount fares are back, but many people still don't know about that. The most hated transit-service managers were recently replaced--one is under investigation after official files were found in the city dump--and lower-tier managers whom drivers accuse of harassment are feeling the heat.

But at a deeper level the coalition's Jon Broadway wonders, Why does the city of the bus boycott endure this particularly insidious expression of racism? Drivers aren't quiet anymore, but most, according to Harden, "are job-scared; for some of them if they lose their jobs, they can't pay child support and now they could go to jail." Institutionally, the union's history has been one of backdoor deals by leaders who soon after move into management. There's no modern equivalent of E.D. Nixon, whose Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a major force in the boycott.

The black community is divided. The pastors, historically engines of organization here, have been almost entirely absent from this fight. "They're not concerned about those who have nothing in their pocket," says Price. But the Rev. James Nuckles of Antioch Baptist Church, now a city councilman active on the transit issue, says, "The entire black community watched the bus system go down. If we've got to blame anyone, we've got to blame that term called 'prosperity.'" Until the past few years brought the triple hit of downsizing, welfare reform and mandatory auto insurance, he says, it was easy to be complacent. To people who'd always had a ready ride, the "transit dependent," a k a really poor people, could be invisible. That's changing, Nuckles says, as more people are forced to find what some here call "get-by solutions" to transportation; with elected officials now attentive to the matter, he expects major improvements in the system within a year. Meanwhile, the transportation coalition, with no staff or full-time agitators, strives to gather more support, with mixed results. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance, which maintains the Civil Rights Memorial here and is currently assaulting the Capitol area's landscape with a glaring new office building, rejected the coalition's requests for $5,000 and $10,000 grants, hoarding its $120 million endowment to battle a Klan that can only fantasize about hurting people the way transit racism has.

At the Montgomery County Department of Human Resources JOBS Program, Carolyn Rawls says that when welfare-to-work case managers meet with people, "the first question is 'Do you have a car?' Typically, the answer is No." Typically, too, the people in question are young and black and female, with children and little chance of getting a car, even less of getting insurance they could afford. (Nationwide, only 6 percent of people on public assistance have their own vehicle.) The average welfare check here is $194 a month, and to get it almost everyone has to be enrolled in a class, a placement program or some kind of work. The county reimburses up to $150 a month for transport costs, but few women have the cash to lay out in the first place. The state welfare-reform program has never provided transportation money.

"Even though clients have to move from welfare to work, how can they?" Rawls asks. "They have to get children to daycare. They have to get themselves to work or placement. A significant number of them or their children have medical problems. They have to go to school for parent-teacher sessions. By the end of the day they'll be traveling from thirty to eighty miles round trip."

After years of scrambling to ferry people around, Rawls now contracts with a private car service. Cost: $20 a day if a person lives in the city, $35 if in the countryside. A bus pass is $15 a week, but given the need and the state of the bus system, it's not surprising that buses often run empty while the car service, flush with demand twenty-four hours a day, is expanding its fleet. Rawls pays the service out of federal welfare money. The 1998 federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA-21, has a special fund, with the infelicitous name Job Access/Reverse Commute, to subsidize transportation for "welfare transitioners," but Rawls was denied funding two years in a row.

Once women on welfare get jobs--often at minimum wage or just above, in restaurants or hotels or office maintenance departments, starting or quitting at hours when the buses don't run--"transportation," Rawls says, "is one of the chief reasons they're not able to keep those jobs." For those women, private car services aren't an option. After three months of full-time employment, there's no more transport subsidy and no monthly check. Then it's really patch, patch, patch.

Alabama has a transportation budget of $1.3 billion but is one of only a few states in the country that spend nothing on public transit. In 1959 the road interests amended the state Constitution to stipulate that all fuel taxes and license/tag fees--now worth almost $800 million a year--are to be spent only on highways, bridges or motor-vehicle law enforcement. For a sense of scale, Montgomery's broken bus system costs about $3 million a year to operate; just a fraction of that state money pot, to match federal and local contributions, could put it back together. The statewide legislative action group Alabama Arise is pushing to amend the Constitution to include "public transportation" among the fundable items. The legislature is split along racial lines on the proposal, though all acknowledge that nearly 700,000 Alabamians--out of a total population of 4.4 million--are "transportation disadvantaged."

There is more symbolism in Montgomery's situation, but, as during the civil rights movement, the greatest hardship from inequality in transportation is felt in the Black Belt counties beyond. On the outskirts of Montgomery and Birmingham, billboards advertise jobs, but in the rural parts people can't even get to the nearest town to be counted as unemployed. In Montgomery the official unemployment rate is 4 percent. In Wilcox County, about seventy-five miles away, it's 11 percent, and that's almost certainly an undercount. You can apply for public assistance in Camden, the county seat, but can't get it unless you register with the employment service, which is in Selma, forty miles away. There are no buses or taxis in Camden. The Rosebud Action Community Center owns an old schoolbus but hasn't been able to raise the $1,600 a year for insurance. If you're poor and your car won't run, you can get money for repairs if you're on welfare, but if you're working, you're stuck. If you're a young man, especially, and can't qualify for public assistance, can't qualify for volunteer transport, you're at the mercy of others. If you're on Medicaid you can get vouchers to go to Montgomery or Birmingham for, say, cancer or kidney treatment, but if you're just over the bar for Medicaid, you might have to cancel your appointment. To qualify for drug or alcohol rehab programs, you have to attend a support group, which meets in Selma; if you can't get to Selma, can't get to group, you can't get rehab. If you're blind and qualify for vocational rehab, you have to travel to Mobile, 170 miles away. If you're commuting to school and can't get there because of a problem you can't solve quickly, you might lose your placement and have to start all over again. If you miss work because sometimes you can't get there, if you lose a job because the car of the neighbor you ride with breaks down, if you build a record of "lapses in employment," you're a bad bet. If you have to see a shrink in Selma every week and your transportation fails, there goes your visit; maybe there goes your medication too. If you miss your medication and start flipping out at home, maybe there go your kids.

"Talk about being vulnerable all the time," says Sister Mary Jean Tucci, a Catholic nun who works with a variety of social services in Selma.

No one in the state Department of Transportation thinks much about what the people of Camden or Selma or Montgomery need. This infuriates Jon Broadway because from 1998 to 2003 Alabama has been guaranteed more than $3 billion in federal money under TEA-21, which requires states to involve the citizenry, particularly low-income and minority populations, in determining spending plans. Alabama allowed for no such involvement before deciding that bridge replacement was its top priority. In the end, the state's share from TEA-21 averages $19.5 million a year for six years for public transportation infrastructure and planning, versus $533 million a year for highways, bridges and road projects. Meanwhile, the DOT continues to seek additional millions for its Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail along US 80. The road interests will be able to congratulate themselves for honoring civil rights, no doubt destroying US 80's haunting simplicity with bridges and extra lanes in the process, while the plain people still labor just to get a ride.

"After forty-five years of struggle, seems we'd be in a different place," says Johnnie Carr, president, since 1967, of the Montgomery Improvement Association. She lives with her husband, Arlam Sr., in the same white Victorian bungalow on South Hall Street that served as a vital substation for information, supplies and rides during the boycott. At 89, she remains an organizer in a city more comfortable with icons. On the anniversary of Rosa Parks's arrest, Montgomery dedicated the Rosa Parks Library and Museum at Troy State University, situated on the corner where Mrs. Carr's friend and movement sister was taken off the Cleveland Avenue bus. Rosa Parks, a certified icon, the "tired seamstress," is the only bus rider all of Montgomery acknowledges, and she lives in Detroit. The museum holds a replica 1955 bus and a replica Chevy station wagon, like the ones Mrs. Carr mobilized to take people to and from their jobs. It was built with $2 million from the federal transportation fund intended to help poor people today get back and forth to work.

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