The Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) honored the legacy of Rosa Parks, a civil rights icon, on December 1, 2016. Each bus in their fleet had a seat reserved in her honor and their headlights shined all day. As someone who appreciates history and as a PR professional, I was intrigued by the pre-event media I saw regarding this: Honoring Rosa Parks: MCTS will keep a seat open, headlights shining on Thursday
I was very glad I caught the news story on my social media newsfeed the evening before the observance. I don’t normally use public transportation, but I started plotting how I would carve out time in my schedule to actively honor the legacy of “The first lady of civil rights” and “mother of freedom movement” as Parks is referred as by the United States Congress.
The actions of Rosa Parks, in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955 helped to bring national attention to systematic racism within public transportation. At the time, bus and train companies enforced seating with separate sections for Blacks and Whites. The conductors had authority to assign seats. Her refusal to give up her seat for a White passenger prompted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The system was legally integrated on December 21, 1956 with landmark United States Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation on public transportation.
In her autobiography, “My Story,” Parks stated:
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
After a morning full of meetings on Dec. 1st, I spent time exploring possible MCTS routes based on recommendations from friends. Once I figured out a route and time that would work for me, and figuring out the bus fare, my grandkids and I went on our little adventure. My grandchildren our 14 and 2 years-old, of course the teenager wasn’t too thrilled about our outing but my granddaughter was noticeably excited and started singing one of her favorite song, The wheels on the bus, as we rolled along.
I appreciated the opportunity to celebrate with my grandchildren a moment in Black history that occurred 61 short years ago. Although I was enjoying the ride as a grandmother and history lover, my PR brain was still in full gear. As the wheels on the bus rolled along, so did my observations of PR opportunities that MCTS neglected with the observance.
We got on the bus with the sole intention of paying homage to the legacy of Rosa Parks. With this said, we had no specific destination that we were in route to. We rode the bus until it took us back to where we initially boarded it at. The hour plus long ride gave me a lot of time to people watch. Undoubtedly, everyone who boarded our bus were regular bus riders, so it seemed liked they got on and off as they normally do by routine. My guess is that many of them were unaware of MCTS’ efforts to honor Parks.
The PR misses began with the placement of the display sign for the seat designating the one that was to stay open in honor of Rosa Parks. As noted in the photo below, the size of the signage did not match the significance of the honor.
The small dimensions made it easy for bus passengers to totally overlook it in their haste to quickly get out of the cold and find a seat. In fact, one woman actually sat in the seat, totally unaware that it was to be left empty. She talked with another passenger until her stop and exited the bus casually.
Milwaukee’s transit system was not the only one to honor Parks this year. Through my research I discovered the University of Maryland, College Park and the Greater Richmond Transit Company did so well. Unlike MCTS, these other transit systems displayed their signage in a way that prevented passengers from sitting in the seats.
Another PR miss by MCTS was them not utilizing their electronic display boards to alert the public of the Parks observance. The audio messages that played throughout the route and prior to stops did not include any mention of it either. GRTC prominently honored Parks on the main exterior electronic boards of their buses.
I commend MCTS for honoring the legacy of the “Mother of Freedom Movement,” but I hope they fully optimize on the public relations opportunities to increase the impact of similar future campaigns. For this go round, the transit company missed the bus with the noteworthy campaign.