“Busman’s holiday” is an old phrase not heard much anymore. Supposedly created in nineteenth century London to describe omnibus drivers who, on their day off, would ride other buses to see how other drivers treated their horses, it came to mean anyone who spends their holiday checking on how other people do the same job they do.
And a busman’s, or in this case a buswoman’s holiday, was literally what Rochell Riddick Figueroa of Allentown, a bus driver for LANTA for 13 years, was on several years ago when she was in the south. “I do this sometimes,” she admits with a laugh. “Some of my friends think I am crazy.”
It was while on a bus in Texas that Figueroa noticed a special plaque marking a seat for Rosa Parks, the African American woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus on Dec. 1, 1955, sparked the modern civil rights movement.
She learned that one like it was on all of that city’s buses. It was then that she decided that LANTA should try to do something like it.
On her return home, Figueroa approached LANTA executive director Armand Greco about the project. He was immediately supportive, as was the LANTA board. But as with all things, it took awhile to get organized and get the necessary funds together. It was then that Rev. Robert “Bob” Stevens, pastor of Zion’s Reformed UCC Church, talked with Figueroa. “As a pastor I like to think it was providential,” he says, “that we met.”
It was on Feb. 4- Parks’ 101 birthday- that the seat plaques, one of which will be on each of LANTA’s 83 buses, were dedicated and a group of local dignitaries arrived at Zion’s Liberty Bell Shrine museum for the opening of the latest exhibit, “From the Bell to the Bus and Beyond,” which is based around Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement that was to end legalized segregation in the United States.
The exhibit’s curator, Sara Jane Brace, shows Parks’ story in the form of a timeline. Born in 1913, Parks grew up in one of the darkest times for black people in the South since slavery. One of the major influences in her life was her grandfather. In at least one instance when Rosa was present, he had to defend his home with a shotgun from an attack by marauding Ku Klux Klansmen.
Parks joined the NAACP in the 1940s and was very active in the movement to challenge the legality of segregation. Several attempts were made, all of them unsuccessful, before Parks’ famous refusal to move to the back of the bus.
One of the most striking parts of the timeline is a photograph of the actual bus on which Parks made her stand for equal rights. Literally put out to pasture in a field in Alabama, it was discovered rusting in 2000 and then restored. It has been on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan since 2003.
Another stunning picture is Parks’ “mug shot” by the Montgomery police with her number 7053 around her neck. What followed was a boycott of Montgomery’s bus system, organized by a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. On Dec. 21, 1956, after lasting more than a year, it ended with the desegregation of the city’s bus system, the first major victory for civil rights in America since the Civil War.
As the years past, Parks felt that her refusal to give up her seat had been misunderstood by some as merely the action of a tired elderly woman at the end of a day of work. This is what she had to say, according to one of the panels in the exhibit:
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically or no more tired that I usually was at the end of my working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
But her pioneering role in the civil rights movement was eclipsed, at least in part, she came to believe, because she was a woman, and a number of personal family and financial problems led her to be forgotten. It was not until the 1980s and 90s that she was honored once more, including being placed on a postage stamp, and she was the first woman to be lie in state in the U.S. Capital building following her death.
As this is the Liberty Bell shrine, the exhibit includes a little of that American icon’s history that’s tied to the civil rights movement. It was known as the State House bell until the 1830s, when, for the first time, an anti-slavery society in Massachusetts called it something different.
Known as abolitionists, they pointed to the inscription on the bell, taken from the Bible, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” as an anti-slavery one, and named it the Liberty Bell. This worked well and by the start of the Civil War the name was widely accepted.
It was Dr. King in his famous “I Have A Dream ” speech at the Civil Rights March on Washington in Aug. 28, 1963 that once more attached the ringing bell to equal rights for blacks. Using the patriotic hymn “My Country Tis of Thee” as a backdrop, he spoke of letting freedom ring “from the mighty mountains of New York” to “every hill and mole hill of Mississippi.”
The exhibit points out the role played by the United Church of Christ over the years in the search for civil rights. It ends with a section on what it calls “The New Jim Crow Laws,” suggesting that despite the civil rights gains of the 1960s, eternal vigilance is the price of maintaining equal rights and justice for all Americans.