The Road to Civil Rights
Too Tired to Move
Less than a year after the Supreme Court's ruling, the separate but equal philosophy of Plessy v. Ferguson would face an unexpected challenge by an incident in Montgomery, Alabama, on bus 5726 on the Cleveland Avenue line on December 1, 1955. In the Jim Crow era, Montgomery required African-Americans to sit in the back, with whites in the 10 front rows. The middle seats were a "no-man's land." If unoccupied, African-Americans could sit in them, but if a white passenger needed the seat, the African-American would have to yield it. That was not the only humiliation, as Montgomery resident Jo Ann Gibson Robinson recalled in her memoir:
Some operators snatched transfers from the hands of black passengers, or threw transfers or change in coins at them. Some drivers refused to make change for Negroes and accepted only exact fares from them . . . . [If] the black rider had no change, he was put off the bus and made to walk, unless other passengers could make change for him. Sometimes passengers who wanted transfers had to stand waiting as the driver drove for one or two blocks before throwing the slips of paper at them. The humble ones bent down and picked them up from the floor and said nothing. Those less restrained, retaliated in bitter, inaudible tones. Nevertheless, if they wanted the despicable pieces of paper, they, too, bent and picked them up.
On rainy days black riders were "passed by" by some of the "yellow monsters," as the buses had come to be called. "Wet, bulksome, and smelly," as the drivers described blacks, whites did not want them standing over them, or "passing by them" on their way to the back. Thus, drivers often drove past them without stopping on rainy days, leaving them standing there to wait for the next bus, or the next, or the next. Those waiting could either continue to wait in the rain or cold for the next bus, or walk to work or home. [Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It ," The University of Tennessee Press, 1987, p. 35-36]
On December 1, 1965, a 42-year old seamstress named Rosa Parks, tired from a day's work at the Montgomery Fair department store, took a seat in no-man's land. When the white seats filled, bus driver James Blake asked Parks and three other African-Americans to move to the back. When they did not move, Blake left his driver's seat to speak directly to them. "You better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." Taylor Branch described the encounter in his history of the Civil Rights Movement:
At this, three of the Negroes moved to stand in the back of the bus, but Parks responded that she was not in the white section and didn't think she ought to move. She was in no-man's land. Blake said that the white section was where he said it was, and he was telling Parks that she was in it. As he saw the law, the whole idea of no-man's land was to give the driver some discretion to keep the races out of each other's way. He was doing just that. When Parks refused again, he advised her that the same city law that allowed him to regulate no-man's land also gave him emergency police power to enforce the segregation codes. He would arrest Parks himself if he had to. Parks replied that he should do what he had to do, she was not moving. She spoke so softly that Blake would not have been able to hear her above the drone of normal bus noise. But the bus was silent. Blake notified Parks that she was officially under arrest. She should not move until he returned with the regular Montgomery police. [Branch, Taylor, Parting the Waters: American in the King Years 1954-1963 , Simon and Schuster, 1988, p. 128-129]
Parks was charged with violating Alabama's bus segregation laws, "booked, fingerprinted, and incarcerated." That night, Edgar D. Nixon of the local NAACP and white attorney Clifford Durr and his wife Virginia obtained bail for Mrs. Parks.
Nixon's role was not surprising. He was a Pullman porter and founder and president of the Montgomery division of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a leader of the Montgomery NAACP, president of the Progressive Democratic Association, and a person who had earned the respect of local white leaders as well as the African-American community. As Robinson recalled:
When violations of human rights occurred, the victims involved would telephone Mr. Nixon, and he would go to their rescue. In fact, anytime a black citizen was arrested in the city and knew not whom to call for help in getting free, Mr. Nixon was called, often during the night, and he would go to city hall and get the prisoner out on bail . . . . He was a friend to all who were in trouble and appealed to him for help. [Bus Boycott , 27-28]
Parks was not the first African-American to refuse to move to her place in Montgomery's buses, nor the first whose arrest had prompted the city's African-Americans to consider a protest. One was 15-year old Claudette Colvin, a high school student who on March 1, 1955, got on her bus and sat two seats from the rear door. When the bus became crowded and the aisles jammed with passengers, the driver demanded that African-Americans sitting beyond the first 10 rows yield their seats to white passengers. When Claudette, thinking she was safe in her seat, refused to stand, the driver found a policeman to arrest her. Robinson described the arrest:
Obeying the driver's demand that Claudette be arrested, the officers commanded the girl to get up. When she refused, they dragged her, kicking and screaming hysterically, off the bus. Still half-dragging, half-pushing, they forced her into a patrol car which had been summoned, put handcuffs on her wrists so she could do no physical harm to the arresting police, and drove her to jail. There she was charged with misconduct, resisting arrest, and violating the city segregation laws. [Bus Boycott , p. 38-39]
Her case seemed ideal for action to end Jim Crow restrictions, especially since the bus driver had appeared to overstep his responsibilities. The case seemed even more likely when she was convicted, not under city law, but a State law that gave discretion to bus drivers, and released on probation to her parents:
She had remained calm all during the days of her waiting period and during the trial, but when she was found guilty, Claudette's agonized sobs penetrated the atmosphere of the courthouse. Many people brushed away their own tears.
The verdict was a bombshell!
However, she was too young to withstand the ordeal she would face. As it was, the conviction was difficult for her to accept:
[Her] head was not held so high. She did not look people straight in the eye as before. Her classmates stared at her, and curiosity-seekers made a special effort to see "the girl who had been arrested." Claudette, who had never sought notoriety, could not understand laws that did such terrible things to people. [Bus Boycott , p. 42-43]
Instead of Claudette, leaders in the African-American community, with Parks' consent, took up her cause. Robinson, representing the Women's Political Council, and Nixon planned a 1-day bus boycott to protest her arrest. Ninety percent of the city's African-Americans complied with the boycott. They knew the reputation of James F. Blake, the driver who had Parks arrested. Historian Douglas Brinkley described him as a "vicious bigot who spat tobacco juice out of his bus window and cursed at 'nigras' just for the fun of it." He added:
His favorite sport was making African-Americans pay in front and walk back to board in the rear, then leaving them with a faceful of exhaust as he gunned the bus away before they could get on. [Brinkley, Douglas, Rosa Parks , Viking, 2000, p. 58, quoted in Rising , p. 201 footnote]
While police officers patrolled the city looking for what they assumed must be "Negro 'goon squads'" that were supposedly intimidating African-Americans into participating in the boycott, the police presence itself intimidated many African-Americans from using the buses. Parks was convicted that same morning in a 30-minute trial. She was fined $10 and directed to pay $4 in court costs. Her attorney filed notice of appeal.
Nixon had called Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy who agreed to help with boycott planning. Then he called Reverend H. H. Hubbard, who also agreed. Finally, he called the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who said he would think about it. He was new to the city, little known within the African-American community and among the city's white leaders, and not familiar with the issues. After speaking to many other people, Nixon called Dr. King at the Dexter Street Baptist Church again and this time, he agreed to help. "I'm glad of that, Reverend King," Nixon told him, "because I talked to eighteen other people, [and] I told them to meet at your church at three o'clock." [Rising , p.199-200]
As Tye noted, that decision was based mainly on the size of Dr. King's church, but it would have a profound effect on Dr. King and the Nation because it would introduce him to a local, State, and national audience as a civil rights leader.
That same evening, community leaders, including Nixon and Robinson, formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to continue the boycott. During the meeting, Nixon observed, "Negroes stopped riding the bus because they were arrested, and now they are being arrested for not riding them." [Bus Boycott , p. 63]
Nixon, who by then had been a Pullman porter for 32 years, had to skip the afternoon meeting because of work commitments. Moreover, his travels as a porter meant he would be unable to lead the subsequent boycott as his local prominence might have suggested. Unable to serve as president of the MIA, Nixon wanted Dr. King to take the post, as Tye explained:
Nixon tapped King because his was the wealthiest and most influential black church in Montgomery, he had not been in town long enough to make enemies, and he was almost as eloquent as Nixon's mentor, A. Philip Randolph. [Rising , p. 202]
Dr. King agreed to serve as president of the MIA as it debated whether to continue the boycott or suspend it while negotiating for a solution. At a mass meeting, he told an enormous crowd, "We are here this evening-for serious business." He continued:
We are here in a general sense, because first and foremost-we are American citizens-and we are determined to apply our citizenship-to the fullness of its means. But we are here in a specific sense-because of the bus situation in Montgomery. The situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. Just the other day-just last Thursday to be exact-one of the finest citizens in Montgomery-not one of the finest Negro citizens-but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery-was taken from a bus-and carried to jail and arrested-because she refused to give up-to give her seat to a white person.
He said the arrest was improper because the segregation ordinances did not specify reserved bus sections for the races. "The law has never been clarified at that point." He added, "And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression." [Parting the Waters, p. 128-139]
Under Dr. King's leadership, the bus boycott would last 381 days, resulting in white harassment of African-Americans, the arrest of Dr. King and the bombing of his home, and inconvenience for African-Americans trying to get around the city. The MIA coordinated alternative transit in carpools for boycotters. The city's attempt to disrupt the boycott included harassment of the carpools, as Dr. Catherine A. Barnes discussed in her book on desegregation of Southern transit:
Faced with a stalemate at the start of the new year, city authorities tried several stratagems. Late in January, they announced a phony settlement, but King got wind of the plan in advance and managed to notify the black community that the report was false and the boycott was still on. After this attempt to break the protest failed, the city launched a crackdown on the car pools. "We have pussyfooted around on this boycott long enough," Mayor W. A. Gayle asserted on January 24. The next day, police began stopping black drivers to check on licenses, registrations, and insurance. Over the next week or two, they gave out hundreds of traffic tickets and arrested over sixty people for minor or imaginary traffic offenses. They threatened blacks waiting for rides with arrest for vagrancy or hitchhiking. Around the same time, rumors about MIA leaders were circulated. The abusive and harassing phone calls that King and others had been receiving from the start of the boycott increased in number. Rosa Parks was fired from her job and was unable to find other steady employment. The MIA was forced out of three different locations in which it tried to establish its headquarters. The city commissioners let it be known that they had all joined the White Citizens Council.
This assault started to weaken the car pools by convincing some drivers to withdraw, but then the opposition went too far. On January 26, the police arrested King for allegedly driving five miles an hour over the speed limit and took him to jail. The minister was bailed out that evening, but the incident rallied blacks around their leader and the protest. [Barnes, Catherine A., Journey from Jim Crow: The Desegregation of Southern Transit , Columbia University Press, 1983, p. 112-113]
In February, the city tried a new tactic. A county grand jury began indicting African-Americans for violating an Alabama anti-boycott law of dubious constitutionality:
Again, however, the opposition's tactics backfired. Instead of being intimidated, Montgomery blacks voluntarily turned themselves in at the police station. Nationally, the mass indictments made the boycott front-page news. Reporters from around the country descended on Montgomery, and with the increased publicity, outside assistance for the protest grew. [Journey , p. 115]
While NAACP attorneys pursued Parks' case, the MIA launched a parallel court case with other defendants in Federal rather than local court. The association was concerned that Parks' case was too entangled in Alabama State courts that would delay resolution indefinitely. On February 1, the association filed a lawsuit on behalf of Montgomery housewife Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, and other residents who had been arrested for violating the State bus segregation laws. The case would be known as Browder v. Gayle .
In June, the U.S. District Court ruled that in view of the Brown , Morgan , and other Supreme Court rulings, Plessy had been "impliedly, though not explicitly, overruled." Since the court could find no rational basis for applying separate-but-equal restrictions to public carrier transportation, the State law violated the 14th Amendment.
Without a hearing, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, again endorsing the lower court ruling. The court issued its brief ruling on November 13, 1956, stating that "the motion to affirm is granted and the Judgment is affirmed." The bus segregation ordinances were unconstitutional. After the Supreme Court notifications reached city officials on December 20, 1956, integrated buses began traveling the streets of Montgomery. Branch said:
That night, King told a mass meeting that the walking was over. He stressed reconciliation, saying that the boycott had brought a victory for justice that would benefit both races. It was not a victory over the white people, he said, but most white politicians seemed to believe otherwise. Mayor Gayle and Police Commissioner [Clyde] Sellers managed to be out of town, unavailable for comment. A local judge who was forced to dissolve his pro-segregation decrees denounced the Supreme Court decision as based on "neither law nor reason" but an "evil construction." [Parting the Waters , p. 196]
Barnes discussed the significance of the ruling:
Ironically, it was the Court ruling in Browder , not the boycott, that finally won desegregation on Montgomery's buses. Although the economic effect of the protest made the bus company willing to desegregate, the boycott never persuaded Montgomery city officials to abandon Jim Crow transit . . . . They yielded only when faced with a final mandate from the Supreme Court, and they had to choose between accepting integrated buses or risking a fine or jail sentence for defiance of a court order. Legally, Browder marked the demise of Plessy v. Ferguson and the separate-but-equal doctrine. [Journey , p. 124]
The two rulings marked a major victory against Jim Crow. Rosa Parks' refusal to yield her seat and the resulting Montgomery Bus Boycott provided the impetus not only to Dr. King's reputation, but the Civil Rights Movement. Within a decade, the legal structure supporting Jim Crow would be gone.