(Photos/Wikipedia Public Domain)
By Jessica Dortch
AFRO News Editor
Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience may have sparked the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, but it wasn’t the first time a Black person stood their ground against the unjust transportation system in Montgomery, Ala. Four years prior to Parks, Lillie Mae Bradford had had enough.
Bradford was born in 1928 and spent the majority of her life in Montgomery. She worked as a school custodian, and relied heavily on the bus as her main mode of transportation.
The Montgomery Advertiser published a series of interviews and stories in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott a few years ago, and Bradford was one of the featured stories. In the interview, Bradford spoke candidly about the incident and about injustice in the south.
It was 1951 and Bradford, 23 years old at the time, had finished her shift and was boarding the bus to head home. She paid her fare and received her transfer slip, only to realize that the bus driver had punched her slip incorrectly.
Now, this might not have seemed like a big deal, but according to Bradford, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Typically, Bradford would suck it up and pay the extra cost due to the driver’s mistake. Not again. “But that day, I said to myself ‘If you don’t defend your right today, you never will.’ So I walked up to the bus driver and tried to talk to him about the transfer,” Bradford recalled in the interview.
At that time, Black passengers weren’t even allowed to interact with the bus driver, but Bradford had had enough. The driver wouldn’t tolerate another word, so she went as far as to sit behind the driver’s seat, in the Whites only section of the bus, and pleaded with him.
The driver drove onto a road off the highway and made a call. They drove a little further before stopping at an intersection, where a police officer was waiting to arrest Bradford and charge her with disorderly conduct.
Like many other African Americans, that charge would stick with Bradford for the majority of her life, even after segregation became illegal in the south. Luckily, in the early 2000s some states recognized this and began offering pardons for those who were convicted for acts of civil disobedience.
When the law was passed, Bradford was 77. Although she knew that having her record cleared then would have less of an impact than it would have when she was in her 20s, the pardon held a certain sentimental value.
Bradford said she wanted to frame the pardon certificate and hang it up. “It will show I was arrested fighting for my rights,” she said.