It’s been almost three years now since I last rode the bus, but this still seems relevant—maybe even more so now, since we’re seeing the dangers of, if not forgetting history, then outright ignoring it.
It was standing room only on the bus. I’d gotten on earlier so I had a seat, near the front, and a woman who’d just gotten on was standing next to me. She was holding the overhead strap with one hand and a cane with the other. I stood up and offered her my seat.
“Thank you,” she said. “You’re a very polite young man.”
“It’s the way my grandmother raised me,” I said, and then felt ridiculous for saying that. I never rode the bus with my grandmother. I can’t even remember riding the bus with my parents. They may never have taught me public transportation etiquette but my grandmother and parents did teach me basic rules of courtesy, and so did teachers and a lot of other adults around me and other people.
The point is there was no single person who influenced me, something I think about whenever I think about the story of Rosa Parks. She helped prompt major changes, but she didn’t do it alone. Before she took a stand on a Montgomery bus she was already working with civil rights leaders. She was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and met Martin Luther King, Jr. Her decision to defy an order to give up her seat to a white passenger wasn’t spontaneous; she was deliberately acting on principle, which, I think, is even braver than a spontaneous act.
The woman whom I gave my seat on the bus was African American, and, as I said, she had a cane. I thought she needed the seat more than I did, but I also thought about how, not that long ago, within her lifetime, she would have been required to give up her seat if I, a white man, had asked her to move. I thought about how, right then, she didn’t ask me, or anyone else, to give up a seat so she could sit down. I don’t want to be presumptuous; I don’t know what her story really is, but it’s possible, even likely, that experience had taught her not to expect someone like me to give up a seat on the bus for her even if she needed it more. I wonder if, if I’d been brought up in an earlier era if I would have been willing to give up my seat on the bus. I wonder if I would have realized it wasn’t “my seat” but really a seat, open to anyone, but that in the interests of a better world it should be available to anyone, and priority should be given to those who need it most.
It’s difficult for me to talk about this even though these are things I think about a lot, and not just on days like today. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today, a day when people remember and celebrate his legacy. And it deserves to be remembered and celebrated, and the work he did should be continued, and, as part of that, I think all those he influenced, all those who worked with him, also need to be remembered.