For those younger than 40, the phrase "back of the bus" might not mean much. If the buses of your childhood were all bright yellow as in school buses, you probably preferred sitting in the rear, away from the eyes of the driver.
For any American over 50, the phrase "back of the bus" has a whole different meaning. During the days of segregation, African-Americans were expected to ride in the back of the bus. If the whites ran out of room in the front of the bus, Blacks were expected to give up their seats. Blacks were not even allowed to walk through the front of the bus on the way to their ghetto in the back. They had to pay the driver, then exit, then go around to the back door. Sometimes drivers (white) would take their money and then speed away before they could get to the back door. Ha ha. Very funny. Look at that __ run. This from the days when hunting Blacks was considered a sport by some in the U.S. and whole families attended lynchings and commemorated the event with group postcards.
We all know about Rosa Parks, but the struggle to move up from the "back of the bus" is an old one. In 1884. Ida B. Wells-Barnett refused to move to the smoking car, which was the one designated for Black railroad passengers. She was forcibly removed from the train, while the white passengers cheered.
Several years later after three of her friends were lynched for daring to fight back when a rival white grocery store sent a mob to attack the Black men's grocery for the crime of stealing business, she wrote:
" The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.
"Become his rival" is in bold, because that is what "back of the bus" means. One demographic group steals the wealth of another through intimidation, which can take the form of both legal oppression and violence. When Black Americans had to sit at the "back of the bus" or risk being ejected and arrested, they were paid a small fraction of what whites were paid for their labor. They were ripped off by store owners, landlords. If they dared to rise above their station (uneducated menial labor) they were killed. Even after the Civil War, several generations of white Americans grew rich and prosperous thanks to the underpaid labor of the nation's African-American citizens.
Here is the story of Rosa Parks and three more women of color who refused to give up their seats. The author of the article writes:
"What was wrong with society at the time to think it was okay to force people to sit in certain seats just because of the color of their skin? Did we not learn a lesson from the Nazi treatment of the Jews?'
I am afraid that people all across the world have learned the wrong lesson from atrocities such as slavery in the U.S. and the holocaust. Slavery made plantation owners rich. Growing cotton was extremely labor intensive. The big plantations would never have survived if they had been forced to pay the field workers an honest wage. A century later, in Nazi Germany, the industrialists who supported Hitler (like our own Henry Ford) made a killing from the unpaid labor of Jewish prisoners. Right now, in America, a whole generation of young African-American men have been moved to the "back of the bus" through our criminal justice system which hands out harsh sentences for the "crime" of using certain drugs. Once in prison, these young men become slave labor. Out of prison, they are denied education grants and are forced to do unskilled, low paid labor for the rest of their lives.
When someone tells you "move to the back of the bus" he isn't simply saying "I don't want to sit next to you." He is saying "Because I am a __and you are a ___, I have power over you. You had better listen to me and do exactly what I say, or you will suffer. And no one will do a thing to save you. They will cheer as I spit on you and hit you and drag you from the bus/train."
And the man (or woman) who tells us to move to the "back of the bus" has another message, one that is implied in the first. "You only have the power and rights that I choose to grant you. You only have worth and value if you have worth and value to me. That means you had better pick crops for a pittance wage. And you had better give birth to the dozen or so children that I need to run my farm or my business with minimal overhead. And when I have had a bad day, you had better not say a word when I take my anger out on you, verbally or physically. Because you were put on this earth to serve me. I own you. So get to the back of the bus. And don't you dare give me that look. Don't you dare object, even silently. Because if you do, I will denounce you to the world as unnatural, a devil bent upon destroying our society. I will paint myself as the victim and you as the transgressor. I will make your life a living hell."
"Back of the bus" is not a uniquely American problem. Here is an account of a Dalit---more commonly known as an Untouchable---who refused to give up his seat. Note that the "offended" party was Muslim, meaning that they do not even believe in the caste system. This was not a religious issue. They were not following the dictates of their Lord. They simply knew that they were more powerful and more important.
"Inhuman and cruel treatment of Dalits is practiced even by India’s non-Hindu communities, as experienced by Kiranbhai Parmar, a Dalit living in Ingoli village, Ahmedabad district, Gujarat. On his way home from work on 21 January 2009 at about 4pm, Kiranbhai took a vacated seat in a public bus while seven male members of the Khan family were standing inside the bus. One of the Khans called him a ‘dhedh’ (derogatory term suggesting lower caste) and declared that as long as the ‘Khan Sahibs’ (Khan Masters) were on the bus, a ‘dheda’ cannot sit. When Kiranbhai refused to give up his seat the seven men punched and kicked him.
"The Khan family belongs to the Pathan community, enjoying significant social status within the general Muslim community. After being threatened by them, the bus driver stopped the bus between the Trasad and Pisavada villages, and left Kiranbhai there, about 7km from his home village. The victim was able to get a three-wheeler and returned home at about 6pm, but pain from his internal injuries lasted several months.
"Kiranbhai went to the police station with his parents Hiraben and Natubhai Parmar, the next day, to lodge a complaint. They watched as an officer called the Khans to inform them of the complaint. They then accepted the family’s application but refused to register a case, advising them to go home; if they pushed on with the complaint, they said, the family would likely not be able to stay in their village. The Khan family later called them, offering to take no action against them if they took back their complaint; the Parmars refused.
'On February 5 the Khans announced a gathering at the local mosque, where they decreed that, beginning on February 6, anyone who associated with Natubhai’s family or his two brothers’ families (Ishwarbhai being the elder brother and Galabhai the younger) by offering them work or selling or giving them any goods, would be fined 5000 rupees. The three families determined to stay and fight the boycott. However on February 9, the water pipes to the fields owned by the three brothers were cut off. On March 8, Ishwarbhai was badly beaten by 11 members of the Khan family after he rented a wheat threshing machine from a nearby village. The operator had stopped shortly after a call from a Khan who threatened to destroy the machine and burn the operator alive, and when Ishwarbhai called the police he was taken to Majid Khan’s home by an officer called Jasaratbhai. The policeman entered the house and allowed Ishwarbhai to be beaten with wooden sticks for about fifteen minutes before taking him back home. "
Why does India have a caste system? Because those at the bottom are forced to do manual labor and jobs that no one else wants to do. In a free society, those with intelligence and determination, would get an education and better jobs. And then who would tend the fields? Who would shovel shit?When you are told to move to the "back of the bus" you are also being told "Shovel my shit. And thank me for being allowed to do so."
U.S. buses are still segregated in some parts of the country. In Brooklyn, the B110 city bus is gender segregated, because that is what the Hasidic community it serves has requested this. However, it is still a public bus. Anyone can ride---and if any women gets on and does not move to the back, she will be told to do so, in violation of U.S. law which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.
We have heard about gender discrimination in public places in Israel recently. This is not a new problem. Five years ago, an Israeli-American woman, Miriam Shear was beaten by a mob on a Israeli bus after she refused to sit in the back:
"I said, I'm not moving and he said, 'I'm not asking you, I'm telling you.' Then he spat in my face and at that point, I was in high adrenaline mode and called him a son-of-a-bitch, which I am not proud of. Then I spat back. At that point, he pushed me down and people on the bus were screaming that I was crazy. Four men surrounded me and slapped my face, punched me in the chest, pulled at my clothes, beat me, kicked me. My snood came off. I was fighting back and kicked one of the men in his privates. I will never forget the look on his face."
Shear says that when she bent down in the aisle to retrieve her hair covering, "one of the men kicked me in the face. Thank God he missed my eye. I got up and punched him. I said, 'I want my hair covering back' but he wouldn't give it to me, so I took his black hat and threw it in the aisle."
Throughout the encounter, Shear says the bus driver "did nothing." The other passengers, she says, blamed her for not moving to the back of the bus and called her a "stupid American with no sechel (common sense.) People blamed me for not knowing my place and not going to the back of the bus where I belong."
Sound depressingly familiar? Ida Wells Barnett would say so, if she was still alive. So would Rosa Parks. Both women would likely be horrified to discover that they can now be required to move to the back because they are woman. You know, the group that makes less than men for doing the same work, making extra profit for corporate bosses, the group that disproportionately lives in poverty here and around the world, the gender which is expected to be an emotional punching bag for men who are also exploited by their bosses and who dare not say a word back to the guy they are really mad as so they take it home and take it out on the wife, enabling them to go back to work tomorrow and make their employer a little bit richer---
If you take away one thing, I hope it is this. God never told anyone to get to the "back of the bus."