Finding a Seat on the Bus: A Daughter Traces Her Father’s Unspoken Civil Rights Involvement

Her life was idyllic. A home in a Washington State national park, in a town so remote it still didn’t have phone or cell service. A few tourists in the summertime and ten-foot snowdrifts in winter were occasional inconveniences to what was otherwise the perfect getaway from frantic society. Ana Maria Spagna had her home, her partner and her writing, and the snug conviction that the forest was buffer enough to keep the world at bay. Despite being a gay woman, in Spagna’s mind society’s inequality issues were not worth her involvement, not when that meant opposing the vociferous, sometimes violent spokespersons of injustice. She was neither an activist nor a joiner, and it was less stressful in the woods.

What then to do with the news that her father had been a hero of the civil rights struggle during the 1950s? While Googling her brother for information about his work in entomology, she came instead across a reference to her father, Joe Spagna, in the index of a book about white southerners involved in the movement. There had been hints of exploits in Florida, and he had worked for causes in South America, but in the eleven years Spagna knew him before he died of a heart attack in 1979, neither he nor her mother ever mentioned his activism. Joe Spagna was a white man with a white wife and kids. He lived, at least from his daughter’s perspective, a traditional, white, middle class life in Riverside, California. How and why had he been involved in the racial tensions of 1950s Florida?

Shy as a child, Spagna followed the pursuits of the loner—writing, running, eschewing the group dynamic—and carried that trait into adulthood, typing out articles and essays on living in the woods, away from the antagonisms of civilization. She followed events in the movement for gay rights, but like everything else, from a distance. But if the news were true, and her dad had been involved, how could she explain her passive nature? She was his blood, yet where Joe Spagna would jump head first into conflict, Ana Maria remained on the sidelines. As she thought about it, her studied decision to withdraw from the mainstream began to look less like an intellectual choice and more like something born of fear. Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey, is Spagna’s effort to reconcile with her father’s past, while reaffirming her own identity.

Each generation in our society chooses its own convictions, by default devaluing those of the generations that came before. This generational disconnect sometimes threatens to undo gains made in cultural and racial interrelationships. The events of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s are as much casualties of this process as any other in the last century. The fundamental impact of those early days of marches and rallies, and the brutal, even deadly retaliation by the establishment has been diminished by time—the audacity of the risks taken by civil rights pioneers homogenized into palatable memory. The popular view today is that discrimination is virtually extinct. Just ask a Tea Partier or watch current TV programming—unpleasant, lingering realities are spin-doctored into corporate-sponsored panoramas of harmony, submitted as evidence that everyone gets along when they get to know each other. If we have really come so far, why then do we need to be reminded of past struggles for minority rights?

For Spagna, the dissociation between her life and the lives of activists was a similar chasm of time and interpretation. Although when the book opens she had been in a committed lesbian relationship for fifteen years, she had never been outspoken about her status, preferring to let others challenge what she saw as inequities in the legal system. She writes, “…as I followed the saga of the couples lining up in San Francisco [when gay marriage was briefly legalized in 2005] over the radio from my cabin, and as I listened, too, to the voices rising in shrill opposition, I began to think the real reason I hid out in the woods was this: I was a coward.”

Her accidental find on Google, and the weight of the emotions it produced, eventually prompted Spagna to travel to Florida in advance of the fiftieth anniversary of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott to learn if her dad was the hero he now seemed to be. Perhaps discovering the truth would stimulate a strand of the genetics she shared with him enough that she might reconsider her reclusive nature and turn towards activism, or at least foster a greater understanding of that kind of life.

Test Ride, winner of the 2009 River Teeth Literary Non-Fiction Prize, is not intended to be an accurate historical account of the boycott, since after fifty-plus years the memories of survivors have diverged into near contradiction. Newspaper accounts from the time were sketchy, and often as prejudiced as the sides involved—white and black tabloids differed in their reports as well as the importance the incidents warranted. What is considered fact is that Joe Spagna was one of six college students—three black men from Florida A&M and three white men from Florida State University, who boarded a city bus, and during the ride switched seats to integrate. The driver went straight to the police station where three of them, including Spagna, were arrested. But history loses its focus soon after. Had there been one bus or two? Was it crowded or empty? Once released on bail Joe Spagna immediately left the state, but was it because he abandoned the movement or that he feared violence from incensed whites? Or was it that he was more afraid of the angry father of his black girlfriend?

But exactitude is not really the point of this fascinating, and sometimes heart-rending story. Instead, Spagna contemplates her personal struggles as she investigates her father’s, and in doing so tries to understand the nature of courage and the motivations of people to act in the interest of what they believe is right. “I felt a wave of pride,” she writes after interviewing the author of the book in which her dad was mentioned. “That’s my dad he’s talking about! And quick on its heels came shame. Cynicism and despair? That’s me he’s talking about.” In the hands of another writer this dichotomy could easily shift into sentimentality, but Spagna, well-grounded as an essayist, keeps her head on straight. Her self-assessments are tough and honest without becoming melodramatic.

Her ability to keep developments and realizations in perspective is appreciated, because in the midst of her search she must also deal with her mother’s struggle with bladder cancer. As Spagna travels between Tallahassee and Washington State she must make time to help Mama Sue in southern California. The illness at times brings her mother close to death, and its concurrence to Spagna’s research invokes a sense of guilt that she is pursuing her own goal when her mother’s need is greatest.

But pursue she does, despite strained relations with Mom (but with the full support of her partner, Laurie). Daughter follows father’s trail after Tallahassee, to a bookstore in San Francisco, to humanitarian work in Venezuela and Colombia, and finally to a home in Riverside, California, where a middle-class life provided perfect cover for Joe Spagna’s activist pursuits as a young man. The simple rationale for his involvements, she discovers, was his sense of what was right, emboldened by the belief in his ability to make a difference—not so naïve a belief considering the outcome of his efforts. However, even deeper for Spagna is her own explication—who she is and why she is so different from him. Eventually, it becomes clear:

I could never be an activist like my dad. It’s not a matter of courage so much as, well, nature. The people in the political realm live too easily with shifting ironies and complications, labels and prejudice, wealth and poverty, power and injustice, black and white, gay and straight. These sun-weathered people in work boots feel like my tribe.

There are events that are far better known to history, like The Montgomery Bus Boycott and The Selma March, events that had a greater impact on civil rights. But the stories that have special resonance are sometimes the ones that are less remembered, and even more rarely told. Test Ride is one of those—a personal journey, filled with revelation after revelation about humanity and family and self. It’s a perspective not often seen in history books, but one which is just as valid, and certainly offers meaning for the current generation, the one that demands personalization of all events, historical or otherwise. Spagna’s writing bridges the separation between official accounts and actualities, and shows us how to personalize history without making it solipsistic.

It proves, too, that reviving and maintaining some memories is a necessity. Without them, without comparisons to prior events , we would lack the reference points that make continuing on the path towards equality worthwhile. As Spagna makes clear in Test Ride, there is still a seat on the bus, and a place for all of us, activist or observer, in the struggles that persist and those to come.

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2 comments

  1. Robert Hoffman

    I’m intrigued. Thanks for the review on this book, I had previously considered getting it, but was on the fence . . . this sounds like a competent arguement for a very difficult social problem — keeping our experience of the past relevant to today’s world. Changes need to come and this leans in that direction, I think.

  2. Thanks for this inspirational book and book review. “Test Ride” is an important milemarker in the journey to equality.

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