Right to Ride…


My first day of classes is cancelled for today because the MTA is still trying to recover from Hurricane Irene. Speaking of public transportation and since yesterday was the anniversary of the March on Washington and Emmett Till’s murder, the same murder that sparked the modern Civil Rights movement, I would like to give a small history of women who resisted unfair treatment while riding. Many people probably think that it started with Rosa Parks, who purposely planned to resist giving up her seat, but there were people before her who had similar experiences as Cedric the Entertainer said in Barbershop (sorry, he had a point):

1) Elizabeth Jennings Graham: She was a black schoolteacher from New York City who was involved in an important civil rights case in the 1850s, Jennings vs. Third Avenue Railroad. The main public transportation at that time was the horse-drawn streetcars on rails and they were privately-owned, which meant drivers or owners could refuse anyone. On July 16, 1854, Jennings was running late for church where she was the organist and decided to get on the Third Avenue streetcar. The conductor ordered her to get off, but she refused and police officer subsequently removed her from the car.

In the New York Tribune, a writer commented on the incident: “She got upon one of the Company’s cars last summer, on the Sabbath, to ride to church. The conductor undertook to get her off, first alleging the car was full; when that was shown to be false, he pretended the other passengers were displeased at her presence; but (when) she insisted on her rights, he took hold of her by force to expel her. She resisted. The conductor got her down on the platform, jammed her bonnet, soiled her dress and injured her person. Quite a crowd gathered, but she effectually resisted. Finally, after the car had gone on further, with the aid of a policeman they succeeded in removing her.”

Jennings refused to accept the maltreatment she received and took part in organizing a movement, which received national attention. She filed a lawsuit against the conductor and the company and Chester A. Arthur, future president of the United States, was her lawyer. In 1855, she received a verdict in her favor and was awarded damages. Also, the Third Avenue Railroad cars were desegregated. A month later, a similar incident happened to a black man on the Eight Avenue Railroad and the case was also in his favor. By 1861, New York’s public transit was fully desegregated.

2) Irene Morgan: It is a coincidence that her name is the same as the hurricane we had in New York, but she is another woman to cause a storm in movement for equal rights on public transit. In 1944, she refused to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus to a white person and was arrested and jailed. Allegedly while the sheriff was trying to arrest her, she tore up the arrest warrant, kicked him in the groin and fought with the deputy who dragged her off the bus. Her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, went to the Supreme COurt in 1946. Thurgood Marshall argued the case and it resulted in a landmark ruling in which it stated that states could not enforce segregation on interstate transportation. Marshall had used to Commerce clause of the Constitution to win the case.

In 1947, her case inspired the Journey of Reconciliation in which 16 activist from Chicago’s Congress of Racial Equality rode on interstate buses to test the enforcement of the ruling. The rides were peaceful until they reached North Carolina where they encountered violence and arrests. Famous Civil Rights activist, Bayard Rustin was arrested and put on the chain gang for 22 days. This ride later inspired the Freedom Rides in 1961 after the ruling was extended to interstate bus terminals in the Boynton v. Virginia case. Still, many southern states still rejected and arrested Black passengers.

3) Claudette Colvin: On March 2, 1955 in Montgomery Alabama, the 15-year-old decided to go against the rules of the bus. Black people had to pay their fare, then get off and get back on in the back where they could only sit starting from the fifth row and back. If a White person did not have somewhere to sit, a black person in the fifth row had to get up and move farther back. Colvin had just wrote a paper at Booker T. Washington high school about discrimination against Black people in department stores and was fed up. Bus driver, Robert Cleere ordered her to move back and she refused. Although she said it was her constitutional right to sit there, she was handcuffed and arrested. The NAACP stepped in and were willing to do her case, but she became pregnant (she said she was raped) and at that time, it would not have been good publicity.

4) Mary Louise Smith: Half a year later, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith, a Civil Rights protester in Montgomery, Alabama, returning home on the city line bus was ordered to give up her seat to a white female and she refused. She was arrested and jailed. Civil Rights activists wanted to use her as a test case to fight segregation laws, but later chose not to because her father was supposedly an alcoholic.

The list goes on as there were several others, and if you want to know more about people who stood up to discrimination on public transportation, I suggest Professor Blair L.M. Kelley’s book “Right to Ride.” Have safe travels everyone!

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