by Rosalind Rosenberg
[Editor’s note: this paper was presented by Rosalind Rosenberg, Professor of History at Barnard College, on March 9, 2013, at Rice University’s “Values in History” conference honoring Thomas L. Haskell. We are grateful to Prof. Rosenberg for allowing us to share this paper with our readers. — LDB]
I am currently writing a biography of the black civil rights leader and feminist theoretician, Pauli Murray. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and mentor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Murray played a role in the creation of new values in history that has not been fully appreciated. Through her influence on these two famous women she advanced the idea that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment encompasses rights for women. In 1962 Roosevelt invited Murray to serve on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, where Murray first gained an influential audience for this idea. A decade later, Ginsburg placed Murray’s name on her brief for the landmark case Reed v. Reed (1971), the first decision of the Supreme Court to accept Murray’s reasoning.
Murray spent most of her adult life engaged in what Tom Haskell has called “Rights Talk,” so I was particularly pleased to receive Marty Wiener’s invitation to speak today not only to say thank you to Tom for all that he has done for me over the years, but also to think, once again, about how his work helps me to think about my own.
When I received Marty’s invitation, I was wrestling with a particular incident in Murray’s life: her arrest on a bus in Petersburg Virginia in 1940 for “disorderly conduct and creating a disturbance.” I was trying to understand why she had challenged Jim Crow on an interstate bus at a time when such challenges were still relatively rare and never effective.
In examining this story, I had an unusual advantage: not only had Murray’s notes on the incident survived in her papers at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, but so too had a second eye-witness account, written by a fellow passenger, a white, male graduate student from New Jersey, studying sociology at the University of North Carolina, Harold Garfinkel. His account appeared a few weeks later in an article entitled “Color Trouble,” in the Urban League’s magazine Opportunity.
As one would hope and expect, Murray (soon to be a lawyer) and Garfinkel (soon to be a sociologist) wrote accounts that overlapped. And yet, their reports of the basic facts diverged in certain key respects. I began to wonder about those divergences. Why did two observers of the same events in a small space over the course of a couple of hours not see and hear the same things? Why did there appear to be not one incident, but rather two?
The Agreed Facts
Let us begin with the facts on which both Murray and Garfinkel agreed. On Easter Eve, March 23, 1940, a southbound Greyhound bus pulled into the Petersburg, Virginia bus terminal. Some whites disembarked. The remaining whites moved to the forward seats. Murray and a friend with whom she was traveling, Adelene McBean, also moved forward, but only as far as the row behind all of the whites. They respected the invisible line of segregation.
A large group of black passengers waited to board, enough to fill up the rear of the bus. Before allowing any new passengers to board, however, the bus driver ordered Murray and McBean to move back. The driver invoked the unwritten but customary rule that blacks begin loading from the back of the bus. They refused.
The reason that they had moved forward was that the seat immediately behind them was broken. And the one behind that, on which they had started the trip, was positioned over the rear wheel. That seat was so uncomfortable that McBean had become ill from being lurched about. They refused to sit there again.
The driver threatened arrest under the segregation laws unless they followed his order. They stayed in the seats to which circumstances had forced them to move.
The driver left the bus and returned sometime later with two policemen and two arrest warrants. Hoping to avert an arrest, one of the police officers tried to effect a compromise. He asked the driver not to insist that the passengers move all the way back to the seat over the rear wheel, so long as Murray and McBean agreed to move back to the seat just behind them.
Murray and McBean agreed to move back, but only on condition that the seat behind them be repaired. The driver repaired the seat. Murray and McBean moved back.
At this point both Murray and Garfinkel believed that the crisis was over. But something happened in the minutes that followed that led to Murray and McBean’s arrest. Here the two records diverge.
Facts Not Agreed On – The Apology vs. the “Accident Report” Cards
According to Garfinkel, McBean then told the bus driver, “I think that as a gentleman you owe me an apology.” “‘Apologize, Apologize for what?’” the driver sputtered. Garfinkel reported that his “words were thick with effort.” “For the way you spoke to me,” Garfinkel recorded McBean as saying. Garfinkel described a shocked reaction throughout the bus. The driver “blind with rage,” Garfinkel wrote, “ . . . was out of the bus in three clattering leaps,” calling McBean a “black fool.” He returned moments later with the police officers, who arrested both protestors for “disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.”
Murray included in her account the fact that McBean had asked the bus driver to apologize, but she reported no outrage on the driver’s part, just a mumbled response that he wanted everyone to have a “square deal.”
Murray believed that the arrest stemmed not from McBean’s demand for an apology but rather from something else. In her account, the final event before the arrest was this: the driver distributed “accident report” cards to all the white passengers and requested that the whites report what they had just seen. Murray demanded that he distribute the cards to the black passengers as well. Furious at her effrontery, Murray wrote, the driver left the bus and returned with the police officers, who made the arrest.
Garfinkel mentioned the distribution of the “accident” cards in his account but placed the event earlier in the story. Moreover, he said nothing about the driver’s giving cards only to the white passengers. Nor did he report Murray’s demand that everyone on the bus receive one.
How Might We Explain These Factual Differences?
Differences in the race of the two observers could easily explain at least some of the difference in the facts recorded. Murray was black and highly attuned to racial discrimination, the sociology graduate student was white and less sensitive to racial wrongs. Moreover, because he was seated in the front of the bus and suddenly distracted his own accident card and how to fill it out, Garfinkel may simply not have heard the exchange Murray reported having with the bus driver over the discrimination implicit in giving the report cards to whites only.
In addition to race, class figured in the drama. Raised and educated in the North, where he had become sensitive to class differences, Garfinkel now studied in the South at UNC, where many faculty denied that class differences even existed. In the exchange between McBean and the bus driver, he saw the possibility of scoring a point with professors at UNC. With a concluding flourish, he made this point to a white female student seated behind him, “Well, there you have it. The next time someone speaks to you about our ‘classless society,’ you tell them what you saw and ask them for an interpretation.” Here was a middle-class woman demanding respect from a working-class man.
But just as important as either race or class in this instance was gender, and not the simple difference that the protestors were women and Garfinkel was a man. Murray was what we would now call a transgendered person. Although she never mentioned her attire in her notes or (decades later) in her memoir, we know from unpublished evidence that she customarily dressed for trips in men’s clothes and slicked back her short-cropped hair with pomade. As she confided in private notes to herself, most observers took her to be a teenage boy when she wore male attire. Garfinkel certainly did, largely dismissing her in his account as an adolescent boy. It is possible that Garfinkel’s perception that Murray was a black teenage boy made him discount everything she said.
Indeed, in Garfinkel’s account, Murray barely figured. The main actor was McBean. She had virtually all the dialogue, and it was her performance, he argued, that led to the arrest. In Garfinkel’s telling, McBean had provoked arrest by charging the white bus driver with racial discrimination and then demanding an apology to her as a lady. Here is how Garfinkel reported the incident:
“You can’t scare us,” he recorded McBean as saying. “We’re not animals. We’re not dirt. Just because we’re colored you think you can push us around like sacks of meal! I’m not afraid of you, do you hear me? You don’t frighten me one bit, not one tiny bit, with your gold-plated badge and your shiny bullets. . . . Coming in here to bulldoze me with your bullets!’”
Born to middle-class West Indian parents and raised in Harlem, McBean acted in a way that most blacks born and raised in the South studiously avoided. Gentlemanly behavior towards middle-class women was a common-sense presupposition of McBean’s predominantly black culture or origin, and nothing in her experience had ever warned her of the possible danger of demanding that deference.
Garfinkel, born in New Jersey to Jewish parents, thought he understood the class dimension of what was happening. “Here was a situation far more complicated than the cop had figured on,” Garfinkel observed; moreover, he suspected, “The bus driver was due to catch hell for this.”
Put on the defensive, the driver had defaulted to the white southern idea, outmoded by 1940, at least as far north as Virginia, that he could treat all blacks the same high-handed way, regardless of class differences. The police officer who was taking the lead at that point had a more up-to-date understanding, one that that the policeman apparently thought should have guided the bus driver:
“This girl was educated and you had to handle them different,” Garfinkel guessed the policeman was telling himself. “‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ he complained to the driver as he swung out of the doorway.”
To his seatmate, another student, Garfinkel then explained, “[The driver] can’t touch her because she’s right and he knows it. According to plain common sense [my emphasis] she’s right, and don’t think he wouldn’t be glad to get out of the whole damn thing. What he’s trying to figure out is how he can get through with her and still be able to say to his boss or her lawyers if she brings it to court, that he was acting in the name of common sense [my emphasis] and the public trust.”
Garfinkel appears to have believed that the two cultures – northern black and southern white – had converged enough in relevant presuppositions for the main actors to come to an agreement. Bus drivers could enforce segregation, but they must provide equal accommodations to all riders. If he could do that, the confrontation would end. As in Murray’s account, so too in Garfinkel’s, the driver sought accommodation by fixing the broken seat. No longer demanding that the protesters move back to their original seat over the wheel, he would be satisfied if they could compromise on moving back just one row, to the now-repaired seat immediately behind them. Equal accommodations provided; crisis resolved.
But there was a further problem, one not of legal rights but of custom. McBean “was saying things too bluntly,” Garfinkel judged. “Who ever speaks these things out? Mention them to your priest; argue about them in class; a joke or two perhaps; but never, never shout. There are still some common decencies which white persons expect the educated Negro to observe.” The liberal, northern-born, Jewish graduate student thought that he knew the limit of white racial tolerance, and McBean had crossed the line.
Shouting was the least of it. No sooner had the driver repaired the broken seat than the “colored girl,” as Garfinkel called McBean, did the unthinkable. She demanded an apology. The demand for an apology, on top of the shouting, precipitated the arrest.
In thinking about these two accounts, I was struck by the repeated appearance in Garfinkel’s article of a key term in Tom’s essay, “The Persistence of Rights Talk in an Age of Interpretation,” namely, “common sense” – as in a community’s “common sense” understanding of rights.
In his essay, Tom mentions Thomas Kuhn’s discussion of what Kuhn calls solidarity groups. Kuhn might have seen the conflict described by both Murray and Garfinkel as one between two solidarity groups, one of whites, a second of blacks. He might further have suggested that the bus created a forum for change in the common sense understanding of rights, for in that space one “solidarity group” [here I am quoting Tom, quoting Thomas Kuhn] found itself exposed to another, and a dialogue, of sorts, ensued.
In some ways the dialogue was successful. Murray and McBean were able to persuade the police who in turn persuaded the driver to provide equal accommodations – a repaired seat – to black passengers.
Why Does the Dialogue Break Down?
But at some point the dialogue broke down, and it broke down for reasons about which the two authors cannot agree. Why did it break down? And why can’t the authors agree on why it broke down? I believe that the answer to both questions lies in the fact that at Petersburg there were several, overlapping solidarity groups functioning at the same time in what feminist scholars call “intersectionality.” Some of these groups or categories proved to be more susceptible to mutual observation, understanding, and compromise than others.
Garfinkel thought that the key points of conflict, as I have said, were class and race. In his telling, the dialogue broke down because McBean, a middle-class woman, expected the driver, a working class man, to apologize to her. McBean’s common-sense understanding of her rights, based on their relative class standing, defied the driver’s, based on their relative racial standing.
The story was even more complicated, however, for there were not just two solidarity groups in conflict, but at least three. Race and class, yes, but also gender – in multiple dimensions.
Murray often described herself as “in between” with respect to her racial identity. She was three quarters white, and a one-quarter mix of black and Indian. She also felt in between in her gender identity: a man trapped in a female body. Garfinkel, perhaps unconsciously, may have picked up on both senses in his description of her. In addition to writing that she was “neither white nor black,” he also characterized Murray, who was at the time 29 years old, as a “youngster,” thus, someone who was not a woman, but not yet fully a man. Furthermore, Garfinkel wrote, the fact that Murray was a “youngster,” as well as being neither black nor white, had a negative impact on the white passengers, including himself. Indeed, the negative impact was strong enough that once having seen Murray, Garfinkel ignored or misheard half of what she reported saying and disparaged the rest.
Here is an example of how Garfinkel wrote about Murray
When the policemen arrived on the bus, one asked what the problem was, to which Murray responded, “Nothing’s wrong officer. Nothing at all is wrong. We are simply sitting in these seats we paid to ride in. My friend here is ill. She can’t ride over the wheel, and besides the seat back there is broken.’”
Garfinkel found Murray’s voice “just a bit too loud and too clear.” The young sociologist sensed that something about this fellow was off. Given this subject’s age, race, and the circumstances, he should have assumed a quiet, obsequious demeanor, but, instead, he spoke loudly, clearly, in a carefully worded way.
Garfinkel did not see Murray as she saw herself, a mature person, speaking with authority, someone who clearly objected to discrimination when the driver ordered black passengers to occupy substandard seats, and who objected a second time when the same driver distributed accident cards to whites only. All that Garfinkel could see, as he put it, was “an arrogant adolescent repeating by rote.”
Murray failed, not only with Garfinkel, but, in Garfinkel’s telling, with others on the bus. “The whites were not attracted to him,” Garfinkel noted, possibly projecting his own feelings onto others, “because he was neither white nor black, spoke like neither, and threatened to upset a good fight.”
“Why doesn’t that guy shut up and let her do the talking?” Garfinkel quoted one of the white passengers as saying. And then, from one of the policemen came this response to Murray: “Aw be quiet.” To this affront, Garfinkel wrote, the “arrogant adolescent” responded by “gaping up insolently, conspicuously, into the officer’s face,” a tactic which the “older man rendered . . . ineffective by choosing to ignore it.”
No wonder Garfinkel saw McBean as the main actor in this incident and the cause of the two protestors’ arrest. No wonder Murray experienced the incident as a humiliating defeat.
We could stop right here, my basic questions answered. The answer to my first question of why Murray engaged in an early and still rare attack on Jim Crow in transportation on Easter Eve 1940 is that she was traveling with a daughter of the West Indies who had no prior experience in the American South. In other words, the incident was an accident. I also think that I understand why the Murray and Garfinkel accounts diverged. Murray’s account reflected her focus on racial discrimination – in the matter of the seats and of the distribution of the accident cards. Garfinkel’s account reflected either his not having noticed that accident cards were given only to whites and that Murray protested this discrimination, or his inability to see anything wrong with the bus driver’s giving accident cards to whites. More important, however, was his inability to see Murray as an actor.
But I would like to make two final points, because they relate directly to Tom’s contribution as an intellectual historian.
Why is this story important?
This story is worth pausing over, first, because it relates to the history of the sociology of knowledge in modern America, and second, because it speaks to the nature of change in the civil rights movement.
First, with respect to the sociology of knowledge, the Petersburg story shows how difficult it is to fix meaning, when basic presuppositions about the appearance and behavior of the those observed diverge significantly from the presuppositions that observers bring to the scene.
The very difference between Murray’s sense of herself and others’ perceptions of her made her challenge to other’s fundamental values harder for those others to hear, so long as she was the one proposing them. Murray’s intermediate gender status helped her imagine a fundamentally new value: that the Equal Protection Clause should cover gender, and that is what my biography of her is ultimately about. But, as we can see from this incident, her very inbetweenness made it difficult for her effectively to communicate with others and would continue to do so for many years.
It is of course possible that Garfinkel’s account of the Petersburg bus incident was closer to what really happened than was Murray’s, but I have given greater weight to Murray’s statement of the facts because it was corroborated by her traveling companion the day after the event, when the two wrote their joint account in anticipation of their meeting that day with the attorney assigned by the NAACP to represent them. I have also given greater weight to Murray’s statement of the facts, because Murray later charged that Garfinkel’s version of the Petersburg bus incident was fictionalized, and Garfinkel frankly admitted that it was by publishing it a second time the following year in The Best Short Stories of 1941. I would feel more confident in my judgment, if I could find further corroboration, perhaps a police report, depositions of others on the bus, a trial transcript. But all I have been able to find so far are the court clerk’s report of the two subsequent trials, and neither resolves the question of what specifically led to the arrest.
The Petersburg Bus Incident was further important in the history of the sociology of knowledge as an early incident in the modern study of “common sense.” Harold Garfinkel went on to a distinguished career. Together with his colleague (and fellow doctoral student of Talcott Parson’s at Harvard) Clifford Geertz, Garfinkel challenged prevailing sociological ideas about common sense. Garfinkel agreed with Geertz’s classic statement that “common sense is not what the mind cleared of cant spontaneously apprehends; it is what the mind filled with presuppositions . . . concludes.” Garfinkel’s article “Color Trouble” is replete with interesting insights into the differing presuppositions of the actors and the havoc those presuppositions played in the actors’ attempts to reach common ground on common sense. Interestingly, Garfinkel also later became a pioneering expert on transgendered people, without ever suspecting that the youth he described on the Petersburg bus was a transgendered person.
Second, the story of the Petersburg bus is important, not only because of its relevance to the sociology of knowledge, but also because of what it shows about the long civil rights movement. Here, even in the midst of apparent defeat, values were, in fact, changing.
Murray always insisted that she had not intended to challenge Jim Crow on this trip. Murray’s adoptive mother was expecting her in Durham, North Carolina that night. But when McBean found herself faced with what she viewed as rank injustice, she acted on the presuppositions of her West Indian background and protested in no uncertain terms. Murray, acting out of loyalty and principle, supported her.
Murray did so in a novel way. She had been reading about Gandhi’s technique of Satyagraha, which loosely translates as an insistence on truth. When McBean forced her hand, Murray attempted to use Gandhi’s techniques. She refused to submit to injustice and carefully explained the reason she and her companion would not move back. Indeed, through what may have been the first use of Satyagraha in the South, Murray inspired an impromptu, two-hour-long interracial, cross-class, cross-region, cross-gender discussion of the meaning of basic human rights.
Even a decade earlier, Murray and McBean’s protest might have ended in violence, but conditions had changed, at least in Virginia. The groups represented on the bus that day came from up and down the eastern seaboard. Though differing from one another in striking ways, they shared enough, through the geographic mobility of which their journey that day was evidence, to be able talk to one another.
Although both Murray and Garfinkel saw the Petersburg Bus incident as a failed attempt to challenge Jim Crow, it was actually of a piece with ongoing micro changes, which, accumulating over the next two decades, would, as Thomas Kuhn might have said, prepared the way for the apparently sudden, seismic shift in American conceptions of race and rights around 1960.
Wrestling with the story of the Petersburg bus has been in some ways a frustrating experience. How can we fix meaning in the past when the evidence is partial and conflicting? How can we can ever see the world through another’s eyes, especially when that other is not only of another race or another class, but also of an unfamiliar gender identification? I am not sure. But I am grateful to be able to return, once again, to Tom Haskell’s wise words that “As long as there is a chance that we have ‘got it right’ – no matter how historical and conventional getting it right may be – we must keep trying, for the game itself is quintessentially human and the stakes are beyond measure.”
 Thomas L. Haskell, “The Curious Persistence of Rights Talk in the Age of Interpretation,” in Thomas L. Haskell, Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 115-45.
 Pauli Murray, “Summary of Facts Leading Up to Arrest of Pauli Murray and Adelene McBean,” March 24, 1940, Pauli Murray Papers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, Box 4, Folder 85.
 Harold Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” Opportunity (May 1940): 144-151.
 My reference to “incidents” in the life of Pauli Murray is meant to echo the famous slave narrative, Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
 Garfinkel. “Color Trouble,” 150.
 Murray, “Summary of Facts.”
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 152.
 Pauli Murray, “Interview with Dr. ____ (German Psychiatrist), December 16, 1937, and “Summary of Symptoms of Upset,” March 8, 1940, Pauli Murray Papers, Box 4, Folder 71.
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 146.
 Pauli Murray, Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet (Knoxville: University of Tennessee press, 1989), 138; Mary C. Waters, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2001), 141.
 Bruce Weber, “Harold Garfinkel, a Common-Sense Sociologist, Dies at 93,” The New York Times, May, 4, 2011; Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 146.
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 146.
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 147.
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 148.
 Garfinkel. “Color Trouble,” 150.
 Haskell, “The Curious Persistence of Rights Talk,” 142.
Kimberle W. Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6. (1991): 1241–1299.
 Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (New York: Harper, 1956), 279; for references to Murray’s feeling that she occupied a space in between male and female see Pauli Murray Papers, Box 4, Folder 71 “Medical and Sexuality.”
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 145.
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 145.
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 145.
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 145-6.
 Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” 146.
 History is replete with evidence of people who differ in their perceptions of the same event. Thanks to James Kloppenberg for pointing me to the classic study in psychology: Albert H. Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, “They Saw a Game: A Case Study,” The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, vol. 49, issue 1 (1954); 129-134.
 PM and AM to Robert H. Cooley, Jr., n.d. [May 31, 1940], PM Papers, 4/87; Harold Garfinkel, “Color Trouble,” in Edward J. O’Brien, The Best Short Stories of 1941. The story that preceded Garfinkel’s was William Faulkner’s “Gold Is Not Always.”
 The clerk of the Court of Hustings, prepared a summary of the proceedings. Robert G. Bass, clerk of the court, “On Appeal from the Police Ct. for Misdme. Creating a Disturbance etc. Fine $5 and Costs, Pulli [sic] Murray,” Virginia Hustings Court of the City of Petersburg, April 29th, 1940, Common Law Order Book, Vol. 37, Page 320, from Pauli Murray’s application for admission to the Bar of the Sate of New York, 1948.
 Clifford Geertz, “Common Sense As a Cultural System,” from Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge (New York, Basic Books, 1983), 73-93.
 Bruce Weber, “Harold Garfinkel, a Common-Sense Sociologist, Dies at 93,” The New York Times, May, 4, 2011; Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, ch. 5; I am indebted to Glenda Gilmore for asking Garfinkel before he died whether he knew that the person he took to be an adolescent male on the Petersburg bus was in fact female. He said he did not. See Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Defying Dixie: Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950 (New York: Norton, 2008), 536, ftnt, 120.
 Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” The Journal of American History, vol. 91, no. 4 (March 2005): 1233-1263.
 Pauli Murray to Jean [Gene Philips] and Pan [Candace Stone], April 9, 1940, and Murray, notes on War Without Violence, March 1940, Pauli Murray Papers, Box 4, Folder 87. Krishnalal Shridharani, War Without Violence: A Study of Gandhi’s Method and Its Accomplishments (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1939). For Shridharani’s life see his autobiography, My India, My America. Pauli had discussed War Without Violence with Dr. Candace Stone and Gene Phillips.
 Murray, Pauli Murray, 142.
 For an interesting study of the impact of the Great Migration on those up and down the eastern seaboard (as well as those who journey to Chicago and Los Angeles) see Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).
 Haskell, “The Curious Persistence of Rights Talk,” 144.