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Transit Equity Day

From 1955 to Today, Recognition of Struggle is Key to Transit Equity

By Leo Blain - Labor Network for Sustainability, January 2021

What were you doing when you were 15? Homework, sports, parties, dances: these are standard fare for 15 year-olds. 

Claudette Colvin was no standard 15-year old, though. When she was 15, she sat down on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and refused to give up her seat to a white person. She was arrested and wrongfully charged with assault and battery. Despite being just 15 at the time of her arrest, Colvin was booked into a cell in Montgomery’s adult jail. When Colvin’s pastor, Reverend H.H. Johnson bailed her out the evening of her arrest, he told her that she had “just brought the revolution to Montgomery.”

And, she did it on March 2, 1955: Nine months before Rosa Parks’ similar and much more famous action. 

Colvin brought a lawsuit along with three other women that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and led to the legal desegregation of the Montgomery bus system. When the Montgomery bus system was desegregated Colvin wasn’t invited on the first desegregated bus. Neither was Parks. In fact, none of the women who were among the first to be arrested in protest of the segregated bus system were invited. Five men took the first ride: Martin Luther King Jr., E. D. Nixon, Ralph Abernathy, and Glenn Smiley, and Colvin’s lawyer, Fred Gray. [2]

Spurred by what she had learned in Black history classes at school, Colvin was the first person to be arrested for refusal to surrender in Montgomery. She was the first person in Montgomery to make a legal claim that transit segregation violated her constitutional rights. The contemporary civil rights movement starts with Claudette Colvin’s act of near-unconscionable bravery, yet she has been largely erased from the history books. 

After Colvin’s arrest, she was ostracized by many community members and struggled to find work after high school. She got pregnant soon after her arrest, and due to her pregnancy and the preference of civil rights leaders for Rosa Parks as the face of the boycott, Colvin was largely cast aside by the very movement she had sparked. Ultimately, her perception in Montgomery became untenable and she moved to the Bronx where she worked in relative obscurity as a nurse. 

In recent years, though, Ms. Colvin has found a champion in movement leaders such as Samuel Jordan, founder of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition. For Jordan, telling Colvin’s story is both long overdue and a critical piece of his work towards transit equity in Baltimore and nationwide. Baltimore has a pattern of public transit policy that is harmful to marginalized residents and has been used to manipulate Black youth. If Claudette Colvin’s story of taking a bold stand against transit inequity can get the attention it deserves, maybe the young people who are victims of transit inequity today can have their voices heard too. 

Essential Workers and Renewable Energy: Key Themes During Community Hearing on Transit Equity

By Judy Asman - Labor Network for Sustainability, February 2021

Right: Placards created by Charleston, South Carolina-based transit riders advocacy group Best Friends of Low Country Transit that were displayed on bus seats to honor Rosa Parks on her Birthday, Transit Equity Day. To see full media coverage of actions like these, click here.

With nearly eight hours of testimony by more than 50 essential workers and riders, both live and pre-recorded, the Community Hearing on Transit Equity, which took place on Feb. 3 and Feb. 4, provided an intentional space for those wanting to share their plights brought on by transit service cuts during the pandemic and with greater threats to transit funding.

The Hearing kicked off with an opening panel, welcoming movement leaders such as International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth Kirk of the Amalgamated Transit Union—a founding union of Transit Equity Day, which takes place on Feb. 4, Rosa Parks’ birthday, each year. International Secretary-Treasurer Kirk lifted up Ms. Parks’ act of resistance, which taught us: “Each of us must choose, whether to move or not,” as he underscored transit equity as a civil right. He also talked about transit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with busses emitting “80% less carbon dioxide” than cars and that busses can also offset traffic congestion.

Kathi Zoern, a transit rider in Wasau, Wisconsin, who is visually impaired, called her bus pass her “car keys to independence.” Passionately emphasizing that transit and transit workers are “essential,” Zoern, stressed that those living in “outlying communities,” three miles from a bus stop, who are unable to drive or who cannot afford a car “cannot get to work, go to school, shopping, medical appointments or go to places to socialize.”

Jonathan Smith, President, New York Metro Area Postal Union Local 10, of the American Postal Workers Union, reminded viewers and listeners that postal workers help to “preserve democracy, and we are proud to do it.” He added, “Many of our members rely on the bus and the train to get to work and to their families, and their families also rely on these services as well. If it were not for the transit in our city, we would not be able to process your mail.”

The hearing also highlighted collaborations that have formed as a result of frustrations with transit authorities and extreme pressure on transit workers with limited funding. In San Francisco, disability rights activist and journalist Zach Karnazes and Roger Marenco, President of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 250A, teamed up to organize for fair access to transit by disabled riders, often challenged by tight schedules for bus operators.

Then there are the impacts on young people who depend on public transit to get to school. During the final hour of the hearing with the American Federation of Teachers–moderated by Jane English, Program Manager on the Environmental Climate Justice Program, NAACP–Carl Williams, President of Lawndale Federation of Classified Employees and Vice President of American Federation of Teachers, and Wayne Scott, President of Colorado Classified Employees Association, talked about the extreme consequences of students living in areas where there are service cuts in transportation–these include the need to shut down campuses that become unreachable to students and even higher risks of higher drop-out rates.

A riveting closing presentation by Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, tied the social isolation of COVID to lack of transit and light rail, especially within rural areas. President Weingarten, whose union recently endorsed the Green New Deal and the THRIVE Agenda, talked about the need for revamping transit systems not just for mass accessibility but to support climate. “There is an opportunity here as well. It’s not just new jobs but it’s also revamping them in a way that we can reduce our carbon footprint,” President Weingarten said, recounting that AFT’s pension system was a foundational investor in the modernization of La Guardia Airport, an effort recognized for its transition to renewable energy “and the jobs that came about from building all of that.”

To watch both days of the Community Hearing on Transit Equity in English and Spanish, as well as all of the submitted pre-recorded testimonies, visit bit.ly/savetransit2021.

It's Rosa Parks' Birthday. Let's Honor Her Legacy by Continuing Her Struggle!

By Basav Sen - Common Dreams, February 4, 2019

Transit equity cuts across race, class, jobs, and climate. Let's get organizing.

February 4, 2019 marks the 106th birth anniversary of visionary movement leader Rosa Parks. Anniversaries such as this are not just moments for celebration. They are a time to rededicate ourselves to the struggles they commemorate.

Rosa Parks is best remembered for her role in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. The legally sanctioned racial discrimination in access to public transit that the bus boycott campaign targeted has ended. But barriers to adequate public transit access remain, making it harder for people — particularly people of color and poor people — from being able to get to jobs, school, and wherever else they need to go. The lack of adequate public transit service also exacerbates environmental disparities and climate change.

Only 5.2 percent of commuters nationwide use public transit to get to work, but 11 percent each of Black and Asian-American commuters and 7.7 percent of Latinx commuters use transit. People of color are clearly more dependent on transit.

This is partly because of vehicle ownership disparities. Nationwide, 84 percent of households own vehicles, but the corresponding numbers are 69 percent for Black households and 78 percent for Latinx households.

Yet when it comes to reductions in transit service, communities of color bear the brunt.

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