10: The Other Bus Story

10: The Other Bus Story

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

The Other Bus Story

It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.

~President John F. Kennedy

In the early 1950s, in a small South Carolina town, a little girl refused to sit at the back of the bus. Her mother gave her the evil eye and insisted she move. But the little girl continued her protest as she sat in a front seat beside a white woman, leaving barely enough room for air between them. The white woman looked back at the little girl’s mother and said, “Oh, it’s okay. She can sit here beside me so she can have a better view.” The bus doors closed, and they all proceeded to their destinations without incident.

This story has not been recorded in any history books or newspapers because I am finally writing it down for the first time. My mother was that little girl, and the white lady is an unnamed character in a story that has helped to shape my image of life in this country. I remember my mother telling this account to my sister and me on more than one occasion, and it has stuck with me all these years. That incident on a bus in segregated South Carolina is the picture of America that I am determined to keep in my heart. While numerous outrageous lines were drawn throughout the southern United States at that time, every person on the bus that day, black and white, made a conscious choice to maintain peace.

Hearing this story as a child was significant to me in a few ways. First, it demonstrated that, regardless of how dire the circumstances, there is hope. At the very core of American life, there has always been hope. Despite the obvious turmoil that plagued the country during that time, there was hope that great things were still possible. On that day, my mother hoped that her determination would result in a better seat, and she prevailed. It was a small victory for a little girl, but an enormous victory for humanity that would reach the next generation.

Second, I learned that “we the people” are just trying to make it — just trying to live a good life and make it home without incident. I do not know if that white lady was just tired, a secret freedom fighter, or a mother who had a little girl waiting at home for her. But I feel certain that she, like most Americans, believed in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all people. It can be hard to cancel out the chaos that surrounds us, but that lady was able to focus on doing the right thing.

And, third, this story taught me the importance of storytelling. How many other little girls and boys of color were brave like my mother? How many small victories have been won in some quiet corner of this nation? The only way to begin to answer these questions is through storytelling, so that we can help paint a more complete picture of this place we call home. I have shared this story with a few people over the years, and they always seem happier after having heard it. I have often wondered if that lady shared this story with her children. I like to believe she did, and that they, too, were inspired and encouraged to share the story as I am doing now.

No, my mother’s name is not famous, nor is the name of the white lady. And, no, my mother’s actions did not lead to the desegregation of South Carolina buses. But that one incident has survived history because it helped shape the heart of a post-segregation African American woman: me. My mother’s decision to share this story helped me focus on the common thread of humanity that is sewn into all Americans. I am constantly grateful that my parents chose to tell positive stories like this one. Their memory sharing helped me form a more complete vision of the world around me — one that acknowledges the trials, but is not embittered by them. I definitely have my tough moments when I am sure that hell in a hand basket is just around the corner. But remembering the incident that took place on a bus in the 1950s helps me know that moments like that have happened all throughout our history and continue to happen today.

~Cynthia M. Gary

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