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Bus seat reserved for a hero

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A placard with a photo of Rosa Parks rests on a school bus seat Tuesday at Phoenix High School.
School buses, RVTD honor the late Rosa Parks with placards on seats

On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama.

Her decision, which led to the 42-year-old Black woman’s arrest, was considered a seminal moment in the civil rights movement. Seven decades later, Rogue Valley resident D.L. Richardson hopes no one loses sight of the constraints Black people faced in everyday life.

“We get to that present-mindedness and thinking, ‘what was the big deal? They get on the bus and walk to the back.’ Is that what it was?” he said. “No, they weren’t even allowed through the bus to get to the back of the seat, if you were African American.”

Beginning Feb. 1, numerous Rogue Valley entities decided to partner with one another for Black History Month and install placards that honor Parks on public transportation vehicles. The initiative also coincides with Transit Equity Day Feb. 4, in honor of Parks’ birthday.

Along with numerous public school district buses, the Rogue Valley Transportation District decided to participate. Edem Gómez, who oversees RVTD’s passenger programs, called the placards “a visual commemoration” that allows people to “be connected to (Rosa Parks’) bravery for what she did and what she meant for civil rights.”

The placards show a picture of a young Parks seated at the front of a bus with the words, “this seat is RESERVED in honor of Rosa Parks,” adding that the participating entity “salutes” her for the “calm strength” that “made a seat available for everyone.”

“We see this as an opportunity to let our public, passengers and community know that our transit service is here to represent all of us and to serve all of us,” Gómez said. “We’re a diverse organization, and our community is diverse, so we want to make sure that we provide a good level of service, a safe service, to all of our passengers.”

B.A.S.E., a support group for Blacks in Southern Oregon, praised the work of their community partners for placing the Rosa Parks placards.

“At BASE, we believe that the more we can understand our shared history, the better we can meet the present moment,” the organization’s spokesperson, Jessica Freedman, wrote in a prepared statement. “It's so crucial to recognize the bravery and courage of the people who have sacrificed their livelihood for ours - this month and all year long. Thank you United Way for bringing this unique project to Southern Oregon and shining a light on this incredibly strong Black woman.”

Kids Unlimited, St. Mary’s School and two school districts — Medford and Phoenix-Talent — are placing the placards on their school buses for the entire month of February.

Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry said he was enthusiastic about the initiative when he was contacted by United Way of Jackson County.

“We thought it was a thoughtful campaign to recognize Rosa Parks for what she did on that bus way back when,” he said, noting the district already honors Black History Month in numerous ways. “We front-loaded this. We had our classrooms and staff share a mini-lesson on Rosa Parks and how she is going to be honored.”

In addition, the district has shared on social media that it is placing the placards on its buses. They will be placed on seat No. 5 of each bus, because Parks refused to give up her seat in the fifth row.

Medford school’s Superintendent Bret Champion said in a prepared statement that the Rosa Parks placards, “will support our efforts to celebrate Black History Month, how far we’ve come, and our ongoing work of knowing each of our students by name, strength and need, and then doing something about it.”

Richardson, who is the Black/African American student success specialist with the Southern Oregon Education Service District, has experience working with students of color in the Medford School District. That is the result of HB2016, which was passed to develop and implement a statewide education plan for Black students in early childhood and post-secondary education programs.

While Richardson doesn’t regularly ride public transportation, he is impressed with the new Rosa Parks placards and plans to go take pictures of them.

“I love the idea of stepping out and rather than just saying by voice, but by actions, we are true to the values that we feel Rosa Parks helped instill in our country,” Richardson said. “Now, we have to get through the work of understanding that we’ve got to do even more. That’s what we've gotten to the point of more recently.”

He said that President Joe Biden’s promise to nominate the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court was a sign of progress.

At the same time, Richardson was disheartened that Black History Month began with bomb threats to several historically Black colleges and universities, forcing many of them to temporarily shut campus operations.

“It’s one of those where you get to that one step forward, two steps back,” Richardson said. “When you’re doing that, there’s no progress. We can’t afford to stay in place. We have to move forward.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.