Rosa Parks, the “mother of the civil rights movement”, moved to Detroit, Michigan, in 1957, so it only seems fitting that the Montgomery, Alabama, bus she rode into history after refusing to relinquish her seat to a white man in December of 1955 followed her to Michigan.
We’re fortunate to be able to view the historic vehicle at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, which lovingly restored the bus after three decades of neglect when it sat rusting away in an Alabama field. The story of Rosa Parks, her move to Detroit, and her influence on the civil rights movement throughout the years is interesting enough-the story of what happened to the bus at the center of her story is intriguing as well.
Other African American women violated Montgomery city ordinances dictating strictly segregated city buses before Parks’ historic refusal to move, but Montgomery civil rights leaders picked Parks, a hard-working seamstress with an impeccable reputation, as the face of the case to challenge the Montgomery law.
Montgomery civil rights leaders called for a bus boycott. The question ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled Montgomery’s segregation law unconstitutional, and the 381-day bus boycott ended in December 1956.
Parks earned many awards and honors, including receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Meanwhile, a man named Roy H. Summerford purchased the old 36-seat bus Montgomery city bus and parked it in a field where it ended up as a derelict hulk used to store lumber and tools. Summerford died in 1986, and his daughter inherited the bus.
The bus had a brief bit of fame in 1990 when it was one of three buses used in a movie called The Long Walk Home. The bus, already inoperable by this time, rolled through the scenes with the aid of a cable pulling it along.
Summerford heirs finally decided to sell the bus in 2000 by initially listing it for sale on eBay. The listing drew media attention, but a lack of documentation about the authenticity of the vehicle probably made some potential bidders hesitant to meet or beat the $100,000 minimum asking price.
Officials at the MastroNet auction house began researching the bus and its background, eventually authenticating it largely using a collection of press clippings from the mid-1950s assembled by a professional clipping service.
The bus went up for auction in 2001 and drew at least 45 bids, including from the city of Denver, the Smithsonian, and The Henry Ford. The Michigan museum won the bus with a bid of $427,919 and spent nearly $500,000 total to pick up the bus, the clipping collection, and a 1955 Montgomery bus driver uniform, coin changer, and punch.
The bus was in pretty rugged shape with a missing engine, missing seats, and broken windows. The vehicle was rusty and the original “fruit salad” paint scheme of white, yellow, and green faded beyond recognition.
I remember viewing the bus shortly after The Henry Ford acquired it, when they briefly put it on display before beginning the long and expensive restoration. This National Bus Trader magazine article from 2002 has some great photos of that initial showing of the bus at The Henry Ford and a ceremony honoring Rosa Parks as she viewed the vehicle.
Rosa Parks died in 2005, and you can visit her burial place at Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Parks’ influence lives on and today, visitors can board the restored bus and sit in the place she refused to vacate back in 1955.
Readers interested in learning more about Rosa Parks might enjoy Rosa Parks: A Life by Douglas Brinkley or Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks and Jim Haskins.
Interested in learning more about the bus boycott or the early civil rights movement in general? You might enjoy Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson or Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 by Taylor Branch III.
© Dominique King 2010 All rights reserved