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Worcy Crawford’s buses drove civil rights movement

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. » Get people talking about civil rights-era buses and it’s all Rosa Parks all the time.

Museums are dedicated to her role in the 1963 boycott that forced Montgomery to stop banishing African-Americans to the back of city buses. Schools and stamps bear her name. There is a Rosa Parks cookie jar and a Rosa Parks app.

But no one talks much about Worcy Crawford, who died in July at age 90, leaving a graveyard of decaying buses behind his house on the outskirts of Birmingham.

His private coaches, all of which he tended almost until the day he died, do not have the panache of the city buses that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. refused to ride. But they have significance nonetheless.

With their cracked windows and rusting engines thick with brambles, they are remnants of what may have been the first bus company owned by an African-American.

Crawford’s work was simple. He kept a segregated population moving. Any Birmingham child who needed a ride to school, a football game or a Girl Scout outing during the Jim Crow era and beyond most likely rode one.

So did people heading to dozens of civil rights rallies — including the 1963 March on Washington where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech — during a time when chartering a bus from a white-owned company was impossible and driving past the city limits was dangerous for a busload full of African-Americans.

Now, Crawford’s only remaining child is trying to keep his father’s much more humble dream alive.

“Dad felt he was never really given any recognition,” said Donald Crawford, 62, a longtime Birmingham high school band instructor and jazz musician. “I don’t think they intentionally left him out of the history books, but because he operated so under the radar they didn’t know what he did.”

To try to make things right, his son sat Crawford down a few years ago and recorded his story, turning it into a self-published book. It is titled “The Wheels of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement,” which is what a pastor called Crawford at an appreciation the community held for him in 1999.

It is sold at a local black-owned bookstore (though the digitally inclined can find it on or from the trunk of Donald Crawford’s car. He thought about sending a copy to Oprah Winfrey, but his cousin in Chicago said she thought it was unlikely to reach her.

Copies made their way to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where curators store Crawford’s oral history.

That is about where formal interest in Crawford ends. But like people who ran the grocery stores and doctors’ offices and other essential businesses in the era when blacks were not allowed to mix with whites, Crawford was an essential part of daily life for black Birmingham.

“This is the only bus company that we had in the days of the segregationist era,” said Horace Huntley, who recently retired as a professor of African-American history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and was a board member at the institute.

“Knowing the width and depth of segregation, this is something that was very, very necessary if black people were to move from point A to point B in any semblance of numbers,” Huntley said. “The importance of it goes without saying.”

Crawford’s first job in the transportation business was taking the popular Ensley All-Stars black baseball team to games around the South in a truck he used to haul coal. He traded the truck for a bus in 1951.

“As far as I knew I was the only black person that had a bus,” he told his son.

That he could start a bus line occurred to him when his mother-in-law asked him to take her and her church friends to a Seventh-day Adventist convention.

He added another bus and started transporting other church and school groups, sometimes free. But when he went for a commercial license, city officials used a racial slur and laughed him out of the office.

Crawford figured out that if he “sold” his buses to churches in name only, he could get a special permit and operate a commercial line in a kind of legal gray area. It was cheaper, and he did not have to pay taxes.

“This was the one time racism really worked in my favor,” he said in the book.

His bus line grew, and Jim Crow laws faded. Crawford’s drivers started taking weekend partiers to New Orleans; Panama City, Fla.; and other cities. Eventually, the company was cited for improper permits and other violations.

In 1979, after a series of legal hearings and protests from established interstate bus companies, he got his interstate commercial permit, according to interviews he gave.

“Didn’t nobody know who I was,” Worcy Crawford told The Birmingham News in an interview a few years before he died. “And to this day some people still don’t know who I am. I say that’s the way the Lord planned it.”

Today, 18 of Crawford’s buses sit in various states of repair on a grassy lot behind his house. Family members still charter two newer coaches, keeping his legacy alive. The others are being sold for parts or kept for reasons of nostalgia. One of them, a tan GMC bus built in 1958, is nicknamed the Rosa Parks.

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