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Celebrating Rosa Parks, Black History, and Transit Equity

Produced by the Front and Centered Transportation Work Group
Photos by the Kitsap Black Student Union

On February 4th, the Front and Centered coalition celebrates Rosa Parks’ 110th birthday! Her legacy as the mother of the civil rights movement and an iconic transit justice activist informs and inspires much of the work that climate and social justice advocates around the country and world do today. 

In honor of the day and Parks’ legacy, two of our Kitsap County coalition members, the Kitsap Black Student Union and Gather Together, Grow Together, are hosting an in-person event. It will feature youth actors and local advocates to celebrate Rosa Parks, the civil rights movement, and the continued work for transportation justice in Bremerton. Organizers will highlight the vital role that expanding public transit plays in the Just Transition from a climate-destroying, fossil fuel powered, and extractive economy to a climate-protecting, renewable-powered, and regenerative economy. (Events like this happen all around the country, so check out the action network to find others!)

Each year, actions and events call us to remember that nearly 70 years ago, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white passenger. At the time, Parks was already a leader in the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP and an employee at a local department store. After a long day of work and the abhorrent murder of Emmett Till, Parks and her fellow advocates decided to take a stand. As a result of Parks’ actions, the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

In its initial days, 40,000 Black bus riders participated in the boycott. Even more people joined as news spread across the American South. Riders demanded courteous treatment, more Black drivers, and a “first come, first served” policy in opposition to segregated bus protocols. Notably, the boycott significantly impacted bus company’s profits as a huge portion of their customers refused to feed into the racist system. Eventually, Parks and five others filed a lawsuit demanding the end to bus segregation while supporters planned sit-ins, eat-ins, swim-ins, and other direct actions.

Though the suit was successful, Black bus riders faced snipers at bus stops, bombings at churches, and Parks herself moved to Detroit to escape retaliation. Parks’ actions also elevated civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., as well as youth leaders like Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith-Ware who also refused to move on buses, demanding equal treatment.

Parks, Colvin, and Smith-Ware are so often remembered for their pivotal actions that demanded the basic respect that people deserve on public transportation, and it stands out that three of the most prominent transportation advocates were Black women across a range of ages. While we recognize that their actions were rooted in so much more than a demand for equitable transportation, we’re also inspired by their messages, angered by the treatment they endured, and motivated to continue advancing transportation justice in Washington State.

Our coalition’s Transportation Justice Agenda calls for a standard that scales up frequent, accessible transportation and allocates funding for such services. We also recently launched the Washington Transit Access Map to provide advocates with an accessible research and advocacy tool they can use to campaign for better transit service.

Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities still feel the effects of historical redlining, a discriminatory practice in which government agencies rated communities where people of color and other minorities lived as high investment risk. As a result, these neighborhoods became easy dumping grounds for the construction of highways and high-speed arterials.

Even further, our members report that their cities have removed and failed to repair bus stops in low-income and BIPOC neighborhoods. What we know, and what communities all across Washington continue to assert, is that we need public transportation that runs frequently and is accessible to those from all walks of life, whether a rider has disabilities or travels with a child. 

As our coalition grows, we continue to hold within us the messages of Parks and other civil rights leaders. Our advocacy for a Just Transition means that we are creating a future where our communities and the earth are healed and thriving, our people have dignified work, and our government values, respects, and represents us. We will continue to build tools that empower our members’ work and fight alongside them for frequent, accessible, and just transportation across Washington State.