Pardoning Rosa Parks

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Four years before Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her bus seat to a white person, Lillie Mae Bradford already had a criminal record.

A frequent bus rider, Bradford had a transfer punch card that the driver kept misreading and mis-punching. One day, in 1951, she decided to do something about it and approached the bus driver.

“I told him I needed another transfer… because he had punched it wrong. And he said, ‘nigger, go to the back of the bus. I said ‘if you give me another transfer, I’ll go back to the back of the bus'”

The driver never fixed the punch card and Bradford never left the front seat. She was arrested for disorderly conduct, booked, fingerprinted and paid a small fine.

But her record has stood since that episode, causing her to lose out on several jobs – one of them for the federal government.

“They would just look at the application and saw that I had a record. I couldn’t even get a maid job.”

Although 75 and retired now, she says she’s ready to wipe the slate clean.

“…and I’m happy to do it, to clear my record, because I really didn’t do anything.”

Bradford can clear her name if a bill that’s before the Alabama legislature passes in the final few weeks of the regular session.

Representative Thad McClammy sponsored the bill.

“I kind of had the feeling that if we don’t really hurry up and address this one issue, many of the people that should be reconciled with it, won’t be here.”

The Rosa Parks Act would allow anyone arrested because of segregationist laws to seek a pardon or have those records erased. Some of those laws date back to Alabama’s 1901 constitution.

Representative McClammy says lawmakers from at least a half dozen other state legislatures – including Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi – have contacted the Alabama statehouse for a copy of his bill.

“I think it’s a step forward for Alabama. And I think any state that would see fit to follow the same process, it’d be a step forward for them also.

But some people don’t like the bill and don’t like Rosa Parks’s name on it.

“It is as egregious to put Mrs. Parks name on this bill, as it is to put her on an Outkast record.”

Reverend Joseph Rembert, of Montgomery’s St. Paul AME church, says naming the bill after Parks disrespects her as much as the Atlanta rappers’ who named a song with explicit lyrics after her.

He says it is an insult to the people who stood up for their rights to have to go before a board and ask to be forgiven. And most importantly, Reverend Rembert says, is that their arrest records should stand…as a reminder.

“We need to remember that stuff. Because if you forget your past, you don’t know where you’re going in the future. And I just think that we have some role models. They did some things; they did nothing wrong. And if anybody ought to apologize, it ought to be the people who wronged them.”

At the Fairview Avenue transfer station in West Montgomery, riders — including Sandra Young and Michael McDermott — say while they believe Parks and the other civil rights pioneers did nothing wrong, they and their families should be able to take steps to clean up their records.

“If they can clear their names and everything, then I’m all for it. Because I think what happened to them is horrible and just, a wrong thing.”

“They were wronged and they should be recognized and be forgiven by the system.”

Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright says he has the authority — right now if anyone asked — to pardon a municipal arrest record. But he says the bill is necessary because it gives those in any city in Alabama a chance to move on… Some sort of closure in their respective cases.

“I will do what the vast majority of the people want: pardon when requested and not when they don’t want to be pardoned for something they didn’t do wrong. But in my heart, I’m telling you, they didn’t do anything wrong.

Bright says in his capacity as mayor, he’d like to make right the wrongs of city and state leaders of the past.

“The pardon should be for us, not for her or the other pioneers.”

The bill passed a House committee and goes before the full Alabama House for debate. Despite the minor opposition, it’s expected to pass before the regular session ends in a few weeks.

~Steve Chiotakis, March 29, 2006

Lillie Mae Bradford’s Montgomery arrest report, dated 1951