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Rosa Parks Wouldn’t Budge
When one weary woman refused to be harassed out of her seat in the bus, the whole shaky edifice of Jim Crow began to totter
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
The most nearly successful attempt had been organized in March, 1955, after one of these three, a fifteenyear-old high school girl named Claudette Colvin, had been arrested and removed in handcuffs. An ad hoc committee of prominent Negro leaders had called on the manager of the bus company and on the City Commission, which governed Montgomery, to protest the way she had been treated and the whole system that led to such acts of spontaneous defiance. Three demands had been formulated: a guarantee of courtesy by drivers; a first-come first-served seating policy; and the hiring of Negro drivers on runs predominantly in Negro areas.
The proposed seating plan would not have ended segregation on the buses. It only required that when all seats were filled (blacks having seated themselves from the back forward and whites from the front backward), the next passengers to board would have to stand, no matter what the color of their skins. Such plans were in use in other southern cities, and the manager of the Montgomery City Lines was willing to go along with the idea until he consulted the company’s attorney, Jack Crenshaw, who declared that the company was obligated to abide by the law, which was “clear on the principle of segregated seating.”
In fact, it was not at all clear. Alabama state law did require clearly segregated white and black sections, but the Montgomery city code had a provision that no passenger could be required to give up his seat if another was not available. And there was sound legal opinion to the effect that within the city’s limits the Montgomery statute took precedence over state law.
Nevertheless, Crenshaw’s ruling stiffened the company’s resistance. Hope of a legal challenge died when Claudette Colvin’s parents refused to let her appear in court. Then community interest cooled to such a degree that the next woman who refused to move back received no organized support at all.
No one knew this background better than Mrs. Parks, who had worked with Nixon on many projects in the NAACP . She could hardly have hoped that her gesture was going to work any profound change in the status quo. She didn’t move—as she explained later—because she was “bone weary” and suddenly fed up with being imposed upon. Yet circumstances would render her arrest the spark that lit the fires of resistance.
When E. D. Nixon got home that evening, his wife told him that Mrs. Parks had called from the city jail. Nixon telephoned the desk sergeant to ask about the charges and bail, and was refused the information, as an “unauthorized person.” Ordinarily his next step would have been to call a young black Montgomery lawyer named Fred Gray, with whom he had worked on some NAACP cases. But Gray happened to be out of town. So Nixon turned instead to Clifford Durr, a distinguished white Alabamian who had recently returned to private law practice after twenty years in Washington, D.C. Durr had been on the legal staff of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in the early New Deal years; later he had served as general counsel for the Defense Plant Corporation; and finally he had been a member of the Federal Communications Commission. He and his wife Virginia were part of a small group of southern white liberals who met, with black counterparts, under the aegis of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, to find ways of improving the South’s racial picture. Nixon had come to know and trust them both.
“I called Mr. Durr,” Nixon remembered later, “and he called down to the jail and they told him what the charge was. Bail was about $50, so I could make that all right.” Then Nixon drove the attorney and his wife (who was a friend of Rosa Parks’s) down to the jail. “I made the bond,” Nixon told an interviewer, “and we got Mrs. Parks out. We carried her on home, and had coffee and talked.”
Over coffee, Durr explained the legal alternatives as he saw them: Mrs. Parks could be defended “on the facts.” She had not violated the Montgomery city code because there was no other seat available. He thought such a case could be won, but no challenge to segregation was involved. On the other hand, her attorney could challenge the constitutionality of the Alabama state law. That would mean a protracted and expensive battle, with no possible hope of victory short of a successful appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But a victory there would strike a major blow against Jim Crow.
Such a fight would need the backing of some national organization like the NAACP . Above all, it would take all the community support that Montgomery’s blacks could mobilize.
Fired by the prospect Durr outlined, Nixon went home and told his wife, “I think we got us our test case at last.” As he saw it, Fred Gray would take Rosa Parks’s case and “do like Mr. Durr said. Go up all the way!” Meantime, he added, “What we got to do now is see about getting folks to stay off those buses Monday when Mrs. Parks comes up in Recorder’s Court.”