12/2/15

Rosa Parks, Historical Memory and Public Space

Yesterday, as I boarded a bus in front of the University of Maryland Student Stamp Student Union (itself named after an influential figure in on campus who served as the “Dean of Women” and increased the presence of women in College Park), I noticed something on the front seat of the bus. At first I thought it was a large check, similar to those ceremonially given to winners of Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. As I focused on it, I realized what it actually was: a sign acknowledging the actions of Rosa Parks on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama 60 years ago on December 1. She famously refused to give up her seat to a white, male rider of the bus and was arrested. This led to the Montgomery But Boycott, which lasted for more than a year before city buses were desegregated.

Commemorate Rosa Parks Day | December 1

Commemorate Rosa Parks Day | December 1

The sign had a quote, images, and a reminder of the anniversary of Rosa’s action. I loved the simplicity of the action and straightforward way in which the sign forces bus riders to confront a historically significant event. Through the temporary occupation of public space, this sign inserts itself into daily life and brings Rosa Parks into the present day, asking modern commuters like myself to consider the situation in which Rosa found herself in 1955. What would I do if I moved through a world in which a racist status-quo was designed into every aspect of the built environment? As I sat down at an empty seat, I considered the impact of Rosa’s actions and the current state of our country around race relations and justice.

Initially, I did not know who placed the sign but have since figured out that it was the UMD Dept of Transportation Services. Thanks Facebook. The DOTS logo is very small and unobtrusive and the sign is free of other university branding. This aspect of the event also stood out to me. The focus of this sign is on remembering Rosa Parks, not promoting diversity and cultural awareness of the university administration.

Kudos, University of Maryland DOTS. You put signs on the front seat of the university’s bus fleet and got at least one person (myself) thinking about the memory and legacy of the civil right movement. I even went online and read more about Rosa Parks and her longstanding involvement with civil rights organizing and activism in Montgomery leading up to her refusal to move to the back of the bus. If you are interested, here’s a blog post providing more context about the culture of violence and racism in Montomgery before Rosa took action, and here’s a podcast about Claudette Colvin, a teenager who was also arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.

Any DOTS bus riders out there in internet-land? Did anyone else see temporary Rosa Parks memorials? I’ll be looking for something similar next year!