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
By the time the meeting adjourned, assignments for phoning, distributing leaflets, and reaching ministers and the cab companies had been handed out, and morale was high. Some optimist even suggested that the passenger load of the bus lines might be cut as much as 60 or 65 percent! Then, two events took place on Sunday that increased the chances of such success. The first was the result of a Friday encounter between E. D. Nixon and a reporter from the Montgomery Advertiser named Joe Azbell. The Advertiser , Montgomery’s major journal, was seen by everyone, white and black, who read the papers in the city. It was by chance that Nixon ran into the white reporter, whom he knew to be friendly. Nixon told him he would give him a hot tip, but warned: “I don’t expect to cooperate with anybody who’s going to write some sort of degrading story about Negroes.”
Azbell promised to write a useful story, if any. Then Nixon told him about Mrs. Parks’s action and the planned boycott. Both men agreed that the story should not be attributed to Nixon, but that Azbell should “find” one of the leaflets on some city sidewalk. Sure enough, Sunday morning’s Advertiser carried a twocolumn, front-page story, presumably given to the paper by an indignant white woman who had got it from her illiterate maid. The tone was properly disapproving (“Just listen to what the Negroes are up to now!”). But Azbell had kept the bargain, and as Nixon had anticipated, “every preacher in town saw it before he went into his pulpit that morning,” and found it important enough to announce.
The other helpful event was a radio announcement by Montgomery’s police commissioner that two motorcycle policemen would be assigned to follow every bus on Monday, “to protect anyone who wished to ride from harassment by goon squads.” This, it was believed, had the effect of frightening some waverers away from the bus stops.
It was dark when the first buses began to roll on Monday, December 5. Dr. King and his wife, Coretta, who lived a few yards from a stop on one of the predominantly Negro runs, were up at dawn to see how the prospects for a 60 per cent reduction looked.
The early buses were usually crowded with black domestic workers on their way to make breakfast in white kitchens. Today, the first bus was empty. The Kings stayed at the window until the next bus passed. It, too, was empty. The third had two passengers, both white.
As the sky brightened, those of the planning committee with cars cruised the streets in different parts of town. What they saw was amazing. Sidewalks were crowded with black pedestrians. College and high school students were thumbing rides. Cars driven by blacks were overloaded with ride-sharers. There were a few old-fashioned horse-drawn buggies on the street, and one man was seen riding a mule. Youngsters waved in derisive humor at motorcycle policemen behind most of the buses. Some walkers—with up to six miles to go—sang as they trudged along. As King later wrote in his book, Stride Toward Freedom : “A miracle had taken place. The once dormant and quiescent Negro community was now fully awake.”
At 9:30 A.M. the drama shifted to the courtroom, as Mrs. Parks’s case was called. Fred Gray adhered to the line Durr had suggested. He ignored the conflict of state and local laws, and argued instead that segregation on public transportation was a violation of the spirit and letter of the United States Constitution. Without comment on Gray’s argument, the judge found Mrs. Parks guilty and fined her ten dollars and court costs, which brought the total to something like fourteen dollars. Gray announced that his client would appeal the verdict, and she was released on bail. Now it was time for a third act: the mass meeting scheduled for 7 P.M. at the Holt Street Baptist Church.
But first, Nixon and Abernathy talked over the needs of the future. These included long-term plans and a permanent organization to carry on the fight. Nixon proposed to call it the Montgomery Citizens’ Council, but Abernathy thought that sounded like the White Citizens’ Councils that were springing up in opposition to school desegregation. His own suggestion was the Montgomery Improvement Association, and Nixon agreed to go along. They also agreed to ask the meeting to approve of repeating the demands made in Claudette Colvin’s case—which fell short of total integration. And then, Abernathy raised the potentially touchy issue of leadership. “Brother Nixon, you’re going to serve as president, aren’t you?”
“Not unless you all turn down the man I have in mind. That’s this young reverend, Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Abernathy was surprised. King was not only young—not quite twenty-seven years old—but very new to the area. To nominate him would be to pass over a number of other, older ministers, many of whom had good qualifications.
“I’ll tell you my reasons,” Nixon said. “First, there’s the way he talks. Day I first heard him preach, I turned to the fellow sitting next to me and I said, ‘I don’t know just how I’m going to do it, but one day I’m going to hook him to the stars!’”