Monday, January 16, 2012

Martin Luther King & the Montgomery Boycott

In honor of Martin Luther King day, I invite you to enjoy the following excerpt from my new book, Getting Things Done in Washington, in which I tell the story of Dr. King's role in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.  

You can read other excerpts from Getting Things Done in Washington by visiting

Martin Luther King and  the Montgomery Bus Boycott

An Excerpt from Getting Things Done in Washington (Bloomington, IN: ASJA Press, 2011) by Joseph H. Boyett.  Copyright © 2011 by Joseph H. Boyett, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a seamtress working for the Montgomery Fair Department Store in Montgomery, AL, finished work just before 5:00 PM.  She walked a half-block to the bus stop on the corner of Court Street and Dexter Avenue to catch the bus to her home.  Mrs. Parks was tired from a long day of sewing and anxious to get off her feet but she decided not to board the 5:00 bus since it was already crowded and there was no place to sit.  When the next bus arrived, Mrs. Parks boarded, paid her dime fare, and walked toward the back of the bus past several rows of empty seats, as Black passengers were required to do by law.  In Montgomery, a bus segregation law reserved the first 10 rows of seats on public buses for White passengers.  The law designated the remaining 23 rows to the rear as the “Colored” section. 
Mrs. Parks took a seat in the first row of the “Colored” section.  Three other Black passengers took seats in the same row.  Mrs. Parks sat quietly, balancing some packages on her lap and thinking about the upcoming holidays.  At the next two stops, the bus began to fill up with passengers.  At the third stop, several White passengers boarded the bus and took their seats.  One White man was left standing since there were no more seats available in the White section.  The bus driver, James L. Blake, turned, looked at Mrs. Parks and the other three Black people seated in the first row of the “Colored” section and said, “Now, y’all move.  I’ve got to have those seats.”  Everyone on the bus knew what Blake meant.  He intended to expand the White section to accommodate the single White passenger.  The bus segregation law required all of the Black passengers in Mrs. Parks’ row to get up and move to the rear of the bus even though only one White person needed a seat.  The law did not allow White people to sit in the same row with Black people even if they chose to do so. 
At first, none of the Black people moved.  Then, Blake said, “You had better make it light on yourself and let me have those seats.”  Reluctantly, three of the Black people got up and moved to the back of the bus where they would have to remain standing for the rest of their trip.  Mrs. Parks remained seated.  Blake got up and walked back to where Mrs. Parks was seated.  He glared down at her and said, “Look woman, I told you I wanted the seat.  Are you going to stand up?”  Mrs. Parks took a deep breath and calmly said, “No.”  Now angry that this Black woman was defying him, Blake warned, “If you don’t stand up, I’m going to have you arrested.”  “You may do that” said Mrs. Parks.  She had decided, she was not going to move.  At that point, Blake got off the bus and went to called the police.
Years later in an interview with Donnie Williams, author of The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, Mrs. Parks had this to say about her actions on the chilly December day:
When I got on the bus that evening I wasn't thinking about causing a revolution or anything of the kind. I was thinking about my husband, how he'd spent his day at the barber shop at Maxwell Air Force Base, where he worked. I was hoping he'd had a good day. I was thinking about my back aching and about the pretty sights and sounds of Christmas. I was thinking about how we were going to have a good time this Christmas, and everybody was going to be happy.

But when that white driver stepped back toward us, when he waved his hand and ordered us up and out of our seats, I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night. I felt all the meanness of every white driver I'd seen who'd been ugly to me and other black people through the years I'd known on the buses in Montgomery. I felt a light suddenly shine through the darkness.[1]

Blake returned shortly with two police officers who arrested Mrs. Parks for violating the segregation law.  They hauled her off to jail.
Later that evening, Arlet Nixon, the wife of Ed Nixon who was the head of the local NAACP, received a phone call from Mrs. Bertha Butler informing her that Mrs. Parks had been arrested.  Nixon and Butler were both friends of Mrs. Parks.  Mrs. Butler had just happened to have been on the bus and witnessed Mrs. Parks’ arrest.  Arlet Nixon was quickly called her husband.  Nixon knew Mrs. Parks well since she had worked with the NAACP in Montgomery for more than a decade as a volunteer.  He immediately called the city jail, told the desk sergeant who he was and asked why Mrs. Parks had been arrested.  The desk sergeant recognized Nixon immediately as a long time civil rights activists who had led a number of voter registration drives in the Black community.  He abruptly told Nixon that Mrs. Parks’ arrest was none of his business. 
Recognizing he needed help, Nixon picked up the phone and dialed the number of a local White attorney by the name of Clifford Durr.  Durr had tried a number of NAACP cases and was a close friend of Nixon.  Durr and his wife, Virginia, were both liberal activists.  They had developed a close friendship with Rosa Parks during a time when Mrs. Parks had undertaking various sewing jobs for Virginia.  Durr immediately agreed to accompany Nixon to the city jail to get Parks out on bond.
That night Nixon and the Durrs gathered around the kitchen table in Parks’ home with Parks, her mother and her husband, Raymond.  Nixon began pressing Parks to agree to serve as a test case for a legal challenge to overturn the bus segregation law.  He had been trying to put together such as case for some time but had never found the right person and situation for a test case.  He was confident he had found that person in Parks. 
David Halberstam in his book The Fifities, says the most interesting thing about Parks was how ordinary she was, at least on the surface.
[She was] almost the prototype of the black woman who toiled so hard and had so little to show for it….she was a person of unusual dignity and uncommon strength of character…Rosa was a serious reader, a quiet, strong woman much admired in the local community...Parks had attended the integrated Highlander Folk School, in Monteagle, Tennessee, a school loathed by segregationists because it held workshops on how to promote integration.  At Highlander she not only studied the techniques of passive resistance employed by Gandhi against the British, she also met White people who treated her with respect.  The experience reinforced her sense of self-esteem.[2]

Segregationist would later argue that the local NAACP orchestrated Parks refusal to relinquish her seat.  Parks denied that saying when she boarded the bus that December evening she had no thoughts of challenging the law or anyone.  Parks was familiar with previous incidences earlier in the year when Black people had challenged the bus segregation law.  For example, in March, Claudette Clovin, a fifteen-year-old student at Booker T. Washington High School, had refused to give up her seat.  Another Black teenager, Mary Louise Smith, had done the same in October.  Police arrested both Clovin and Smith.  A judge had placed Clovin on indefinite, unsupervised probation.  Smith pleaded guilty and her father paid her $5.00 fine.  Initially, Nixon had thought Clovin might make a good case subject but he later changed his mind.  However, Parks maintained she had not been thinking about the Clovin or Smith cases that December evening.
I'd been happy early in the year when Claudette Colvin had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. I'd been with Mr. Nixon when he'd declared it was exactly what the black community needed. I'd seen the light in his eyes at the thought of being able to fight against the oppression of the laws that were keeping us down. I'd called my white lady friend Virginia Durr and we started calling folks to alert them to what was going to happen. We knew we were going to have to have help for a long struggle. Then I saw the hurt in Mr. Nixon's eyes when he found out the Claudette Colvin case wasn't the one we could use. I saw the silent hurt take over. But I wasn't thinking about all of that while I sat there and waited for the police to come. All I could think about, really and truly, was the Lord would help me through all of this. I told myself I wouldn't put up no fuss against them arresting me. I'd go along with whatever they said. But I also knew I wasn't gonna give up my seat just because a white driver told me to; I'd already done that too many times.[3]

Nixon very much wanted Parks to agree to participate in a test case.  He paced back and forth.  “Mrs. Parks, your case is a case that we can use to break down segregation on the bus,” he said.  “I gonna ask you…I want to ask you: let us use your case for a test case.  I’ll tell you this: it won’t be easy.  It’ll be long and hard.  We might have to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, and that’ll be a struggle.”[4]  Clifford Durr assured Rosa that he could probably get her off with a small fine if she did not want to take the case any further.
Parks was reluctant.  Her husband, Raymond, was afraid for her safety if she were to agree.  “Oh, the white folks will kill you, Rosa.  Don’t do anything to make trouble, Rosa,” he said over and over, “Don’t bring a suit.  The White people will kill you.”[5]
Nixon kept talking and answering questions from Rosa and Raymond.  Finally, Raymond agreed.  “I think Nixon is right,” he said.  Rosa’s mother said she agreed also.  Finally, Rosa said, “Well, in that case, we’ll go along with you.”[6]
The next day, Nixon began planning what to do next.  He called Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College for Women, to ask her advice.  Nixon respected Robinson’s ideas. She had given him good advice concerning the Colvin case earlier in the year.  As a young college student, Robinson had her on run in with a Montgomery bus driver when she accidently sat in the fifth row of a nearly empty bus when she was supposed to sit in the tenth row.  The driver kicked her off the bus.  The incident angered and embarrassed her.  When she had returned to Montgomery to accept a teaching job at all Black Alabama State in 1949, Robinson decided that she would do whatever she could to get bus segregation abolished.  Consequently, she was more than willing to help Nixon in any way she could.  At one point as they were discussing Rosa Parks’ case, Robinson suddenly said she had an interesting idea.  They should do something more than just file a lawsuit.  Nixon asked what she meant.  Robinson replied that a month earlier she had attended a speech by New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell.  Powell had described a successful bus boycott in New York.  Robinson suggested, why not try the same thing in Montgomery.  The majority of bus riders in the city were Black, primarily Black women domestics taking the bus across town to work in the affluent White suburbs.  The city bus company could not survive without Black passengers.  Nixon agreed.  A boycott might be just the thing to convince the city to changes its policies.
 Someone had to organize and lead the effort.  Nixon was not overly concerned about the organizing part.  He knew how to do that as he recalled some years later:
There's one thing I know. I know how to organize. I ain't gonna argue with you about doing paperwork. I ain't never been a newspaperman. I ain't gonna argue with no schoolteacher about teaching school. I never taught school. I ain't gonna argue with no minister about preaching. I ain't never preached. But when it comes to civil rights and organizing, I know how to do it.[7]

Nixon was not so sure about being the leader.  He was nearly sixty.  He thought the leader of the boycott should be a younger man.  Additionally, he had to be gone from Montgomery frequently on business.  The boycott leader need to be someone who could be in town most of the time.  Additionally, the boycott leader needed to be someone who was persuasive, articulate, and who would give the movement a positive image.  Nixon thought he knew just the right man for the job—Martin Luther King.
King was only twenty-six years old.  He and his young wife Coretta had arrived in Montgomery just the year before.  King had accepted an offer to become the new pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church with its affluent Black congregation.  He had a Ph.D from Boston University where he had been exposed to the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  He enjoyed classical music and had a habit of sprinkling his sermons with quotations from Socrates, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Galileo.  As Halberstam notes, as a speaker, King was nothing short of brilliant.
He had the ability to make complex ideas simple: By repeating phrases, he could expand an idea, blending the rational with the emotional.  That gave him the great ability to move others, Black people at first and soon, remarkably enough, White people as well.  He could reach people of all classes and backgrounds; he could inspire men and women with nothing but his words.[8]

When Nixon approached King about leading the boycott, King was not sure he wanted the job.  Nixon recalled:
When he heard me talk about how long it'd take and how hard the struggle would be, he wasn't sure. He was a young man just getting started in the ministry. His family was young. His wife had given birth to their first child, a little girl, less than a month ago. He said, 'Let me think about it a while and call me back.' After some more calls, I went to see him at the parsonage on South Jackson Street, and I told him straight out that I thought he was the man who should lead this thing. He paced the floor a time or two, then he turned to me and said in that strong and powerful voice of his, he said, 'Brother Nixon, if you think I'm the one, I'll do it.' I nodded and clasped his hand and held it, and I swear there was something stronger than ever in that handshake. I knew we'd all be one together.[9]

The Montgomery bus boycott began on Monday, December 5, 1955, just four days after the police arrested Rosa Parks.  King and his wife woke early.  Organizers had distributed leaflets to the Black community announcing the boycott.  Pastors in Black churches throughout the city had encouraged their Sunday congregations to join in the boycott.  King and other leaders of the boycott, who had organized themselves as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) with King as president and chief spokesperson, felt if they could get participation from just 60 percent of the Black community, the boycott would be a success. 
King recalled that the house he and Corretta lived in was just a short distance from a bus stop.  They could see the buses passing by from their front window.  Around six o’clock in the morning, the first bus pulled up to the bus stop.  King was in the kitchen having a cup of coffee when Coretta rushed into the room.  “Martin, Martin, come quickly!” she said.  King put down his cup and rushed to the front window.  The first bus was still sitting at the bus stop—empty.  King knew that the South Jackson bus line that ran by his house was one the busiest in the city.  He and Corretta remained at the window waiting.  Finally, the second bus came—empty.  Then the third bus came.  It was also empty except for two White passengers. 
King rushed out and jumped in his car.  He drove up and down the Montgomery streets closely examining every bus he passed.  Most were empty or carried only White riders.  King said he counted no more than eight Black people on all the buses he passed that morning.  All day long, the buses remained largely empty.  Black people walked or thumbed rides or car-pooled.  The boycott organizers had hoped for sixty percent participation.  They got nearly 100 percent. 
The boycott dragged on day after day and month after month.  The city refused to make any changes to the bus segregation law and protesters refused to give in and start using the busses again.  Ironically at first, boycotters weren’t asking that the busses be desegregated.  They were only asking that the bus company eliminate the arbitrary and moveable dividing line between Black and White sections.  They wanted an arrangement in which Black people would fill the bus from back to front and White people from front to back and that no one would have to give up their seat once they were seated.  It was a perfectly reasonable request but the White city administration refused so the boycott went on and on.  Black leaders were surprised at the city administration’s position since they felt their demands were sufficiently limited such that even the most conservative White should be able to accept. 
When it became obvious that the city leaders were not willing to settle, MIA filed a suit in the U.S. Federal District Court.  The suit asked for more than a change in the seating arrangement.  It asked that the court declare bus segregation itself unconstitutional because it violated the Fourteenth Amendment.  The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.  The city immediately appealed the case to the Supreme Court.
Months passed and there was no end to the boycott in sight.  Eventually, some affluent White people got so desperate to have their domestic help back cleaning their houses that they began driving them to and from work.  The Mayor of Montgomery remarked, “The Negroes are laughing at white people behind their backs.  They think it’s very funny that White people who are opposed to the Negro boycott will act as chauffeurs to Negroes who are boycotting the buses.”[10]
Some White people reacted to the boycott with violence.  King and his family began receiving threatening phone calls.  One night while King was away at a meeting, someone set off a bomb on the porch of King’s home.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.  Two nights later, someone tossed a stick of dynamite onto Nixon’s lawn.  The dynamite exploded but again no one was harmed.
Three months into the boycott, the Montgomery city attorney announced that he had found a way to put an end to the nonsense.  He cited a 1921 state anti-labor law that made it illegal for anyone to engage in restraint of trade.  Police arrested King and 114 Black leaders of the boycott.  They were fingerprinted and released on a $300 bond each.  In late March, King case came to trial.  The charge was conspiracy “without a just cause or legal excuse” to engage in activities designed to hinder a company in its conduct of business. 
A number of Black witnesses testified to the numerous abuses they had suffered on the bus lines over the years that provided just cause.  A woman testified that a bus driver had once shut the door on her blind husband’s leg and then drove off dragging him along beside the bus.  A Black man testified that a bus driver had forced him off a bus at pistol point once because he could not produce exact change.  Another said a driver had forced his pregnant wife to surrender her seat and stand simply because a White woman needed a seat.  Others told of being verbally abused.  One Black woman recalled that a bus a driver had once called her an “ugly black ape.”  The judge listened to the testimony and was unmoved.  He declared King guilty as charged, ordered him to pay a fine of $1,000 plus court costs, and released him on bail pending appeal.  City officials thought they had won.  They had not.  In fact, they made matters worse for themselves.  Black people rallied on the courthouse lawn after hearing the verdict against King shouting their determination to keep the boycott going.  They did.
Spring turned into summer.  Summer turned into fall.  The boycott continued with no end in sight.  Black people walked to work, bicycled, shared rides, and did anything to get around the city but ride the busses.  The bus company sank into debt.  It had to lay off drivers.  City officials could not believe it.  They thought the first rainy day would drive Black people back to the buses.  It did not.  City police began stopping Black cabdrivers from carrying groups of five or six at a time for ten cents a ride citing a old ordinance requiring a minimum charge of 45 cents.  Police started arresting Black carpool drivers for any minor traffic violation.  Police stopped King for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone and jailed him for his “crime.”  When Black people heard of his arrest and stormed the police station, King was let go on his own recognizance.
Black people in Montgomery did not give up.  They had never shown such determination before to defy a Jim Crowe law before.  Black people in Montgomery were making history and the news media took notice.

Media Coverage

On Christmas Day, 1954, Montgomery obtained its second TV channel when WSFA-TV went on the air.  Two months later the Oklahoma Publishing Company purchased it.  The new owners of WSFA were former newspapermen and had a strong commitment to local news coverage.  They promised their audience a full 15 minutes of news and 15 minutes of weather coverage each night.   Such local coverage of the news and weather was almost unheard of at the time.  The other TV channel in Montgomery, in fact, offered no local programming at all, news or otherwise.  WSFA hired as its first news director a young man named Frank McGee.  McGee was just 30 years old and had only a high-school equivalence.  McGee grew up in northern Louisiana and Oklahoma, the son of oil rig worker.  He was not ideological but he sympathized with the plight of Black people.  He recognized immediately that the bus boycott was a very big news story so he pursued it with vigor.  McGee later said the owners of the station gave him pretty much a free hand to put on the air whatever he wanted.  He speculated that the owners primarily saw the boycott as an exciting story that would help the station compete with the local newspapers.  The story got even more exciting as White people continued to resist any change.  The fact that WSFA happened to be one of the few stations outside major markets to have its own film processing equipment helped McGee tell his story and gain national attention.  WSFA was a key source of film feeds to the national networks including NBC for stories from the Deep South.  McGee’s ongoing Montgomery boycott coverage was included in those feeds and NBC network news picked up the story.  Soon the national press corps that had only recently been involved in covering the Emmett Till trial, began arriving in Montgomery.  The national reporters had little sympathy for the Montgomery officials when they arrived.  They had even less after they met Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

The Boycott Ends

In October, the city of Montgomery sought a court injunction to end the car pools and other means of transportation, MIA had put in place as alternatives to the bus system.  The city alleged that the car pools were a “public nuisance” and a “private enterprise” operating without a business license.  It sought compensation for damages the “illegal enterprise” had caused the city due to lost revenue from bus company revenues and an end to the car pools.  MIA asked for a restraining order from the federal courts but the courts denied their request.  King and other leaders of the MIA received subpoenas to appear at a hearing on Tuesday, November 13. 
As the chief defendant, King was seated at the front table along with the prosecuting and defense attorneys on the day of the hearing.  It was around noon and the court was taking a brief recess.  Suddenly, King saw the Mayor and other city officials called to a back room along with the city attorneys.  Excited reporters were streaming in an out of the courtroom.  King turned to the attorneys sitting next to him and said, “Something is wrong.”  At that point, Rex Thomas, an Associated Press reporter, walked up to King and handed him a sheet of paper.  “Read this,” he said.  King opened the paper.  It was a news flash.
The United States Supreme Court today affirmed a decision of a three-judge U.S. District Court in declaring Alabama’s state and local laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court acted without listening to any argument; it simply said ‘the motion to affirm is granted and the Judgment is affirmed.

The Montgomery bus boycott was over and because the City of Montgomery had been unwilling to compromise bus segregation was now illegal not just in Montgomery but throughout the South.[11]  More importantly, advocates for civil rights had found their Gandhi in King.

[1] Quoted in Donnie Williams, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006), pp. 47-48.
[2] David Halberstam, The Fifties, (New York: Villard Books, 1993), pp. 541-542.
[3] Quoted in Donnie Williams, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006), p. 48
[4] Donnie Williams, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006), p. 51
[5] David Halberstam, The Fifties, (New York: Villard Books, 1993), p. 543.
[6] Donnie Williams, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006), p. 52.
[7] Donnie Williams, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006), p. 59.
[8] David Halberstam, The Fifties, (New York: Villard Books, 1993), pp. 547-548.
[9] Donnie Williams, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006), p. 60.
[10] William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972, (New York: Little Brown, 1973), p. 909.
[11] The following are excellent sources for additional information about the Montgomery boycott.  Donnie Williams, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006),; David Halberstam, The Fifties, (New York: Villard Books, 1993), Chapter 36; Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), and Robert Mann, The Walls of Jericho: Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Russell and the Struggle of Civil Rights, (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1996),  Chapter 8.

1 comment:

Richard Van Ingen said...

Also perhaps of interest to your readers is Morris Dees' Autobiography and the book "Trial" by James Patterson.