Eighty-year-old Doc Phillips got on a City of Santa Monica Big Blue Bus and went to sit in the first seat he saw, but little did he know that on that particular day the seat was reserved for an extra-special passenger.
Phillips, a lifelong Santa Monica resident, accidentally took a seat on a black ribbon that was draped over the first seat on the bus Thursday, December 1st, in memory of the late civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
“I sat on it,” said Phillips, who added that he didn’t initially realize the meaning behind the black ribbon.
The Big Blue Bus paid tribute to Parks on the 50th anniversary of the day she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated public bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
The arrest of Parks for the action sparked a yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, which was organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and eventually led to a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated seating on buses is unconstitutional.
Parks, who died October 24th at the age of 92 at her home in Detroit, was often referred to as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Public transportation agencies around the country honored Parks on the 50th anniversary of the day she refused to give up her seat and Big Blue Bus officials chose to pay tribute in their own unique way.
“It all started on a public transportation vehicle and the entire public transportation industry is marking this milestone,” said Stephanie Negriff, Big Blue Bus director of transit services.
The first forward-facing seat on all of the over 200 Big Blue Buses was reserved December 1st with a black ribbon and marker in memory of Parks.
“We wanted to find some way to honor her memory and what she stood for,” said Big Blue Bus customer relations manager Dan Dawson, who proposed the black ribbon tribute. “Her simple action changed the course of history and changed civil rights.
“What she did took enormous courage. All of us here at Big Blue Bus respect what she did and we wanted to take the opportunity to thank her.”
Jabryan Donald, a Big Blue Bus driver for eight years, also expressed admiration for Parks’ courage to fight for racial equality at that time in the nation’s history.
“I thought it was wonderful to pay tribute to her,” said Donald, who grew up in Mississippi. “For her to have the courage to stand up and do something like that with the way things were was very difficult.”
Donald emphasized the historical significance of Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, saying “at this time I can sit wherever I choose.”
As Donald prepared to take his Big Blue Bus out on its daily route, he said the tribute may also be a way to educate passengers who may not be aware of the historic event.
Each of the 200 Big Blue Buses also provided “take one” information cards to passengers that detailed Parks’ life story and her act on December 1st, 1955.
“A lot of people may not know and maybe it’s something they can learn about,” Donald said. “It’s a great way to bring it to everyone’s attention.”
While other transportation agencies across the country marked the anniversary in a variety of ways, Negriff said the idea of reserving the first seat on all Big Blue buses “sends a strong symbolic message itself.”
“We thought that reserving the first seat was symbolic of having Rosa Parks there in the first seat of every bus,” Dawson said.
After Phillips mistakenly sat in the seat reserved for Parks, he took a seat next to fellow 80-year-old Santa Monica resident Jessie Battles.
Both passengers looked at the black ribbon on the seat across from them and thought about the woman it was honoring.
“I really appreciate what she did,” Battles said. “I appreciate every bit of it.”
Muhammad Movahed, a passenger who sat in the seat directly behind the one reserved on the No. 2 line, praised the Big Blue Bus for honoring Parks, whom he called “one of the bravest ladies in history.”
“It’s very nice of the (Big Blue Bus) company to do this,” Movahed said.
Big Blue Bus passenger Arthur Luna, of Venice, also praised the black ribbon on the seat for being a “respectful and honorable” tribute to Parks.
“It’s very important that we recognize her,” said Luna, who paid tribute in his own way by laying a small flower next to the reserved seat. “It’s nice to have it in memory of her and everything she did for people.”
Movahed suggested one more way to memorialize a woman who made such a difference.
“I think we should have a Rosa Parks Day in this country,” Movahed said.