Sitting At The Back Of The Bus

It must have been in the spring of 1954 when we said "Goodbye" to Mac's mother at the Athens's bus station and boarded the bus for Atlanta. We had spent a few days at her place before returning to Nashville to finish our school year when Mac would be receiving his M.A. in Religious Studies. In Atlanta we would change buses for Nashville. While waiting in the Atlanta bus station, we decided to try riding in the back of the bus for the next leg of our trip. Since that bus would take us across the state line from Georgia to Tennessee, we reasoned that the usual state requirement that only Blacks sit at the back of the bus could not be enforced. We could sit wherever we liked on an interstate bus. We carried out our plan when we got on the bus and went to sit on the long bus seat across the back.

The driver, being busy boarding his passengers failed to notice our outlandish behaviour and did not see us sitting there until he had everyone on board and glanced back to see that everyone was seated before taking his own seat. Naturally, he came back immediately to speak to us. He probably assumed that we were foreigners or Yankees and did not understand the rules. He politely informed us that we were required to move to a seat near the front. Just how far to the front was not very clear. The line between the section for Blacks and the section for whites was a nebulous one depending on the number of Blacks on the bus at any given time. As I recall, there were none when the bus was prepared to leave.

In his best Georgian accent, Mac informed him that we chose to remain seated where we were. The driver then became more insistent and told us we must move. He would not start the bus until we had done so. Again, Mac told him we were not planning to move. Mac explained that since the bus crossed state lines, the Georgia law did not apply. By this time, the situation had caught the attention of those seated nearest us. At first, we were just the object of interested stares. Who were these two young people sitting on the back bench which was clearly kept free for any Blacks who might board the bus at later stops? Why did they insist on staying put when they had been asked to move?

The bus driver returned to the front of the bus and took his seat. We thought we had won our battle. However, he did not start the bus. He simply sat for a time and considered the situation. Then he returned to speak to us again. "I can't start the bus until you have moved to your proper seats," he told us "and you are causing us to be late starting." I suppose we should have felt some pity for him and dutifully moved. But, by this time, we were feeling very stubborn about our small act of rebellion, and continued to sit where we were.

The interested stares of our fellow passengers were becoming more hostile. One or two told us to move so that the bus could get underway. One man, in particular, became rather irate and insisted that we had no right to sit in that section and must move or else. If any of the other passengers understood the purpose of our "sit-in" they failed to tell us.

The bus driver then left the bus and went back into the station to consult with someone inside. After a few minutes he returned and again, with more than a little anger in his voice, told us we had to move before the bus could depart. We stayed put.

By this time, it was evident to all on the bus that there was some sort of delay in our departure and that they would be late reaching their destination if the bus did not leave soon. Their voices began to join his in insisting that we move to other seats. We stayed where we were. I was beginning to wonder if we shouldn't acknowledge defeat and change our seats. But Mac refused to give in to this ridiculous practice of segregated buses when the Federal law was clearly against it. It was an issue of Federal Rights over States' Rights. It was a moral issue which needed to be addressed by those with the courage to stand for the Right. We were taking our stand, or rather, our seats.

The bus driver continued to return to the bus station to consult with some person of greater authority and the bus and the two of us stayed just where we were. Even when the Person-of-Greater-Authority boarded the bus to speak to us, we still refused to move. I must have worried that the driver would return to the bus with a policeman who would remove us bodily or at gun point. Nevertheless we were determined to make our point.

The scheduled time of departure had gone and more time had passed. Other passengers were joining in the chorus demanding our compliance with Georgia's sacred custom. We were responsible for all sorts of inconvenience to them and their fellow passengers and were just being obstructionists. It couldn't possibly matter to us where we sat as long as it wasn't at the back of the bus.

We might very well have sat there all night if the bus driver hadn't finally decided that he couldn't delay the bus's departure any longer and still keep a reasonable schedule for the trip to Nashville with stops along the way. He took his seat, started the bus, pulled away for the station and drove us to our destination, seated at the back of the bus where a few very surprised Blacks found us when they boarded at various stops along the way.

About a year and a half later, Rosa May Parks boarded a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama and took her seat. She refused to give her seat to a white passenger and move further to the back. The result was the Montgomery bus boycott by the city's many African-Americans and the end of segregation on buses.

Norma C. Elrod
25 March 2010

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