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60 Years After The Boycott, Progress Stalls For Montgomery Buses

Riders stand in a crowded bus in Montgomery, Ala. Sixty years after the historic Montgomery bus boycott, many of the city's residents say the system doesn't work for them.
Debbie Elliott
Riders stand in a crowded bus in Montgomery, Ala. Sixty years after the historic Montgomery bus boycott, many of the city's residents say the system doesn't work for them.

Editor's note: This post contains a word you might find deeply offensive.

Thanks to the legacy of Rosa Parks, people of all races can sit where they wish on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., today. But that's only if there's a seat, or even a bus going their way.

Sixty years after Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger, the buses in Montgomery continue to be an unpleasant experience for many riders. At age 87, Lilly Mae Bradford is in the waiting room of the Montgomery bus terminal, which is full of mostly African-American riders.

Bradford, who has been riding since she was a teenager, is on her way home after an afternoon of errands, a large shopping bag at her feet. "I like to sit in the back of the bus," she says, "not because I have to but because I've got that option now."

She did not always have that option.

It was an awesome thing that Rosa Parks did, but I don't think she'd be celebrating this bus system."

A few years before the Montgomery boycott drew attention to segregated buses, Bradford was arrested for walking to the front of the bus to get a transfer from the white bus driver. "After I got up there and asked him for a transfer, he told me 'nigger, get back to the back of the bus.' " Bradford refused and was taken away by a policeman at the next stop.

Four years later, when Rosa Parks was arrested in December of 1955, black riders boycotted for more than a year until a federal court ruled segregated buses were unconstitutional. Bradford is proud of the change that came, but says she would have expected more progress in 60 years.

Riders have long lobbied to improve Montgomery's bus service, which has been scaled back over the decades. The complaints today are that the city's bus fleet is in disrepair, the buses are cramped and overheated, and that they don't run frequently enough or to the right places.

"It was an awesome thing that Rosa Parks did, but I don't think she'd be celebrating this bus system," Callie Greer of the Montgomery Transportation Coalition says. "We got the right to sit anywhere we want on the bus. OK, now where's the bus?"

Fifteen fixed bus routes run about every hour to 90 minutes during the week, with reduced hours on Saturday and no service at all on Sunday. Greer adds that the bus boycott was as much about economic justice as it was civil rights. "If you can't get to work, you're going to continually be poor," she says.

Bus fare is $2, discounted by half for seniors and students. The farebox brings in less than $1 million a year for a system with a budget of about $6 million. The rest comes from government subsidies, and therein lies the problem, says Montgomery Area Transit manager Kelvin Miller. "We can only put the service on the street with the funds that we have available," Miller says.

The system has struggled with deficits in recent years, particularly when gas prices spike. Miller's main goal is to replace out-of-date equipment. "A bus only has a limited useful life," he adds. "It's only supposed to last so long. And the majority of the equipment we have exceeded that useful life."

These concerns raise safety risks for riders. A dramatic example came last summer when one of those old buses caught fire. No one was injured, but the fire drew attention to the aging fleet.

Some argue Alabama's contentious civil rights history led to policy decisions that undermine public transportation. "A major part of the story of race in Alabama is geographic, spatial segregation," says Stephen Stetson with Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for low-income residents. "That plays out in the housing arena and I think it plays out in the public transportation arena. That white people are afraid of black people and there's a fear of crime, a fear of poverty, it's a part of the narrative." Today, most taxpayers drive cars and see little benefit in paying for a service they don't use.

Alabama is one of only five states that don't spend any public funds on mass transit, so bus systems like Montgomery's run only with federal and local monies. In addition to the constitutional prohibition on using state oil and gas taxes for anything other than roads and bridges, there's little political will to change, Stetson says. "In a place like Alabama where the fiscal climate is really restrictive," he explains, "it's deemed to be something we just can't afford to pay for."

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange says it's a challenge just to come up with the $3.2 million a year the city spends to keep the current service running. "We would love to be able to expand our bus system, but it is a matter of priorities and deciding whether we want to have five more firefighters or 10 more police officers or two more buses."

So without additional resources, riders will continue to have to wait just a little longer for the next bus.

All Things Considered weekend host Michel Martin heads to Montgomery on Dec. 1 to look back on the city's historic bus boycott in its 60th anniversary. The live storytelling event is a part of Martin's Going There series. For more information, visit www.nprpresents.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.