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What does "sit in the back of the bus" in the following sentence mean? It has been taken from Harvey Milk's "The Hope Speech."

The first gay people we elect must be strong. They must not be content to sit in the back of the bus. They must not be content to accept pablum.

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    What did you deduce when you looked at the first few Google hits for “sit in the back of the bus”? Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 10:21
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    Personally, I find the meanings posted in the answers below kind of odd. In highschool (around 10 years ago), the back of the bus was the "cool" place to sit - so this seems to me like an idiom that is no longer true.
    – Izkata
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 14:58
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    @Izkata - Quite often, many idioms retain their meaning long after the have become culturally obsolete. We still dial a phone number, even though rotary phones are rare now, and people who repeat themselves over and over again still sound like a broken record, even though vinyl records are almost as rare as rotary phones. Even if the back of the bus has become the "cool" place to sit, this idiom still retains its meaning of "unfair treatment."
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 3:43

2 Answers 2

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The expression "sit in the back of the bus" was used here to indicate unfair treatment. In this case, unfair treatment against gay people. It probably became famous due to the Montogomery bus incident happened in 1955 where Rosa Parks, an African-American civil rights activist, was arrested for sitting in the front of the bus and not moving to the back.

A similar incident occurred couple of weeks ago where a gay couple was forced to move to the back of a bus by the driver because they were holding hands. You can read about this article here.

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  • I don't think 'sit at the back of the bus' refers to the article you mentioned, particularly given that the speech the questioner refers to predates the news article by 30 years or more.
    – toryan
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 10:31
  • @toryan Well, I missed the line This is from Harvey Milk's "The Hope Speech". But that was pretty ironic.. Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 10:43
  • it is a little "on the nose", I'll agree :)
    – toryan
    Commented Aug 24, 2013 at 10:51
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In the USA, before the Civil Rights Movement really took hold in the 1960s, black people were required to sit in the 'colored section' of public buses. This was at the back of the bus, and black people were required to give up their seat to a white person if there were no available seats in the white section.

In 1955, Rosa Parks famously made stand (no pun intended) against this segregation by refusing to give up her seat to a white person. Although she wasn't the first person to do this, she was a prominent civil righs activist, and her gesture became a symbol for the civil rights movement.

Nowadays, to sit at the back of the bus has come to mean to accept unfair treatment (of oneself).

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