- Historic Sites
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
It was another miracle of oratory, in a different style from his Holt Street speech. This time there was no applause. Simply, at his request, the crowd began to melt away, and with it, the tension. King even got them to listen quietly as the mayor promised a reward for information leading to the arrest of the bombers. But it had been a close thing. A small incident could have brought bloodshed. Calm returned, although two nights later a bomb landed—harmlessly—in the Nixons’ yard.
After that climactic moment, there was a year-long struggle marked by court actions, by feats of improvisation that kept the M.I.A. ’S transportation system rolling, and finally by fresh bombings.
Perhaps the most significant and least publicized action on the legal front was the petition on behalf of the M.I.A. for a hearing on the constitutionality of the Alabama segregation law before a three-judge federal court. This tactic was first suggested by Clifford Durr. About midApril he realized that something more would be needed than Mrs. Parks’s appeal, which was before the Alabama court of appeals, to carry the case to the top. The Supreme Court could not render a decision “on the merits” until the Alabama court had spoken—almost certainly against Rosa Parks. Durr later related what the problem was:
We knew they [the Alabama judges] were going to hold out as long as possible, and maybe never rule on the merits at all. They could reverse the lower court on some narrow technical ground and send the matter back for a new trial, and it could just drag on forever. Meanwhile, the city authorities were getting ready to break up the car-pools. They’d found some grounds for an injunction and if it was granted, that meant the end of the boycott. People just couldn’t afford to give up their pay checks—not the people who were the backbone of the movement, who had low wages and large families and no savings to live off of.
Durr therefore suggested to Fred Gray that he petition for a special three-judge federal court and ask it for an injunction against discrimination in seating, on the grounds that it was a violation of rights guaranteed in the Constitution. Such a panel was allowable in a federal action challenging a state law. And its rulings could be appealed directly to the Supreme Court.
Gray went to work at once, made contact with the New York and Washington branches of the NAACP , got some high-powered co-counsel, and filed his petition. The hearing was set for early in May. The court was composed of Richard T. Rives, at the time judge of the United States Circuit Court for the district including Alabama, who was the presiding justice; Judge Frank Johnson, an indigenous “Andrew Jackson Republican” (in Durr’s words) from the northern part of Alabama; and Judge Seybourne Lynn of Birmingham.
Within three weeks, two of the three white southern judges—Johnson and Rives—outvoted their colleague and ruled in favor of Gray’s petition. Rives, who wrote the majority opinion, was threatened, obliged to listen to sermons attacking the federal judiciary in the Montgomery church he attended, and had garbage dumped on his son’s grave in a local cemetery. Johnson took similar abuse. But the strategem was successful.
The federal question was raised at last. For the city of Montgomery appealed the ruling “on the merits,” and the state of Alabama joined in the appeal; the matter now went onto the Supreme Court’s docket.
That made the third case arising out of the bus battle to be working its way through the judicial system. The first was Mrs. Parks’s appeal. Then, in March, a second had arisen when King and other M.I.A. leaders had been found guilty of violating a state antiboycott injunction—in a trial that usefully exposed black Montgomeryites’ grievances to the national public. Their conviction, likewise, was on appeal.
Montgomery authorities were meanwhile harassing the car pools. A car full of riders would be flagged down; the inspecting officer would find one or more violations of the state safety standards—weak brakes, poorly aligned headlights, or something else. The driver would be forced to abandon his vehicle, and a city wrecker would be called to tow it away (at the owner’s expense) for repairs (also at his expense) in a cityapproved shop. A similar tactic was the arbitrary cancellation of black auto-owners’ insurance.
But all this was only prelude to the main attack. On October 30 Mayor Gayle directed the city’s legal department to request an injunction “to stop the operation of the car pools or transportation systems growing out of the bus boycott,” and to collect damages of fifteen thousand dollars for loss of tax revenues. Fred Gray’s counterpetition to prevent the city’s interference on behalf of the bus company was denied. A hearing was set for November 13.