One normal yellow bus with green-and-white trim, all scrubbed and sparkling, sits parked in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.
Nearby are a collection of more than 125 notable vehicles of the 20th century in America, including a string of presidential limousines: Theodore Roosevelt’s horse-drawn brougham, the Lincoln Continental John F. Kennedy was riding in on that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas and the final limousine ever to be preserved.
This last one was Ronald Regan’s refuge and escape after the failed assassination attempt by John Hinkley in 1981 and was handed down to Gerald Ford, where an attempt was also made on his life. It’s not hard to realize why all subsequent presidential limos are destroyed by the Secret Service for security reasons.
But the bus is unique. Bearing the destination “Cleveland Ave” on its front, this near-sighted designation has instead inspired a journey of reform and liberation from Montgomery to Memphis, from Selma to Washington, D.C., and around the world in unlikely places of resonance such as San Salvador and Soweto.
Of course, by now, you’ve recognized this bus by its most famous passenger: Rosa Parks. She was not the first black person arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger after a hard day of work. She was however, the most famous and the best candidate to help advance the cause of civil rights for millions of African-Americans living under segregation and injustice in the 1950s.
The fact that she had attended NAACP meetings in the past and was well acquainted with the political realities of this struggle long before her arrest might shatter the myth of this event as some fortuitous accident of history or the blind will of God’s move toward justice. For me, it underscores the powerful courage of this quiet, matronly, unassuming 42-year-old seamstress who became a symbol for radical social transformation.
For of all the great vehicles of the 20th century placed in The Henry Ford Museum, the “Rosa Parks Bus” is the only one you can actually board. You can sit where Rosa sat, peering out the window she looked out and imagining not only what it must have been like for the people on this bus on Dec. 1, 1955, but also what might have been going through her heart and her mind.
The other exhibits are encountered from a distance, standing on the sidelines, like most of our history where we are spectators of the endless array of images rushing past the vantage point of our experience. But as a people of faith in the incarnation, we are constantly called to engage ourselves with life.
Rosa Parks hardly spoke, but her witness was heard around the world. She took a stand while sitting down and became the catalyst and model for non-violent social resistance.
She was just trying to go home after a hard day’s work. She didn’t have all the answers. She didn’t even interrupt her normal routine. She just knew the difference between right and wrong. By saying “no” at the right place and the right time, the world was changed. If she can do it, so can you. Just get on board, for often the road takes care of the rest.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.