A Clear Perspective on Back-of-Bus Years

Article excerpt

The Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott is a signature event of the civil rights movement. It began in 1955 when Rosa Parks defied local custom and law and refused to give up her seat to a white man.

The struggle for civil rights in Tallahassee began in 1956 when two Florida A&M University roommates, Wilhelmina Jakes and Carrie Patterson sat down on a city bus next to a white woman.

The bus driver told them to move to the back of the bus.

The young women said they would get off the bus if the driver would refund their dime fares.

Instead, the driver pulled into a service station, told all the passengers to stay put, and called the police.

Three patrol cars showed up and the arresting officer told the women that if they wanted a ride so bad, he'd give them a ride -- to jail.

It's easy to forget, 40-plus years after the back-of-the-bus years, when segregation was so pervasive that it was taken for granted. Segregation was the way it had always been and the way it was -- and the way it would always be, if the put-your-heart-in-Dixie-or-get-yourself-out crowd had its way.

It's easy to forget.

Glenda Alice Rabby's The Pain and the Promise: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Tallahassee, Florida (The University of Georgia Press, $40) brings it all back.

Don't let the academic title put you off.

This is a highly readable book, rich in detail, conversational in tone, informative. And, if you happen to have been there at the time, at Florida A&M or Florida State University in the mid-'50s and beyond, it's a must. If you've forgotten the way we were -- and in 40-some years, who hasn't forgotten? -- this book brings it back, only more clearly, in many instances, than it was the first time around.

The battles, the issues, the strategies and the players are here.

The time and place are here.

". . . many trappings of the small southern enclave clung to Tallahassee. These included a `good old boy' police department headed by a chief who sold eggs from the back seat of his patrol car and was rumored to sell moonshine in the dry county; a newspaper editor who, though not Southern born, voiced the reactionary, paternalistic attitude of the majority of his readers; an antiquated judicial system that kept tight jurisdiction over local matters; and above all, a society that imposed rigid segregation on every aspect of life."

Rabby, who lived in Orlando and Jacksonville as a child and who graduated from Wolfson High School in 1967, spun the book out of a doctoral dissertation on the civil rights movement that she wrote, at FSU, in 1984.

"About six years ago, I decided I wanted to expand this story and do some more detailed research and make it a book," Rabby said during a telephone conversation from Tallahassee. Rabby is a director of policy planning for post secondary education with the Florida Department of Education.

For her expanded research, Rabby relied on news accounts and organizations' records and archives from the time, and on court records. She had access to the proceedings of the so-called Johns Committee, a legislative committee, headed by Charley Johns, hunting communists and witches. She interviewed the key players who are still alive, and she relied on a series of interviews with participants conducted in 1978 by FSU religion professor Jackson Ice. …