Sunday, October 30, 2005

Precursor to Rosa Parks

In all of the (deserved) praise of Rosa Parks on her death, hardly anyone seems to remember that she wasn't the first person to refuse to abide by segregation rules on public transportation systems. I did a bit of Googling, and I can't find any website that mentions the following story, which I'm retyping from page 190 of Earl Lewis's book In Their Own Interests: Race, Class, and Power in Twentieth-Century Norfolk, Virginia:
In one case, bus driver Clyde Horner noticed Sara Morris Davis, a black schoolteacher, seated between two white passengers at the front of the bus. Horner told her to vacate her seat immediately. Reportedly in a firm but even voice, Davis explained to the driver that the bus was full and that the seat in front was the only one available. Where else, she asked, was she to sit? The driver answered gruffly that he did not care, as long as she vacated that particular seat. She refused, the police were summoned, and she was arrested.

Upset by the entire episode, Davis initiated one of the first legal challenges to a state's segregation laws, a decade before the now-famous Montgomery bus boycott, which sparked the direct action phase of the civil rights movement. Davis's attorney contended that the bus driver willfully ignored a white passenger sitting in the black section and enforced the law in only one direction. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals agreed with Davis, in a June 1944 split decision. It ruled that the law was to be enforced in a nondiscriminatory manner. Thus, in this narrowly focused case, the court decided that the actions of the bus drivers -- and not the law -- discriminated.


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