- 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
There was no question in the minds of the M.I.A. leaders that this was, as King confessed to a mass meeting on the second of November, a bad moment. The city was certain to get its injunction, and to end the car pools would hopelessly undercut the boycott. He tried to rally confidence by saying, “This may well be the darkest hour before dawn. We have moved all these months with … daring faith. … We must go on with that same faith. …”
November 13 found the main contestants on both sides in court for the injunction hearing. The same judge who had tried Mrs. Parks a year earlier was listening to the arguments when, some time around noon, there was an interruption.
The two attorneys for the city, the mayor, and the police commissioner were all called out of the court, and there was an excited buzzing at the press table. One of the reporters brought over to the defense table a copy of a message just received over the wire service teletype machine:
The United States Supreme Court today affirmed a decision of a special threejudge U.S. District Court 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.”
Legally, the struggle was over. The black-led and black-supported boycott, rising out of Mrs. Parks’s spontaneous act, had resulted in the highest court’s driving another nail in the coffin of legalized segregation. But life follows law slowly. It took a month more for the judicial mandate actually to reach Montgomery. In that time the injunction against the car pools was granted. So blacks, still staying off the buses, walked many extra miles when no alternative arrangements were possible.
The interval was used to prepare the black community for the first day of the new dispensation. Sheets of suggestions on how to behave “in a loving manner” were distributed. Role-playing sessions were held in black churches. Among whites reactions varied. The City Commission received front-page coverage to proclaim its “determination [to] do all in its power to oppose the integration of the Negro race with the white race in Montgomery … [and] stand like a rock against social equality, intermarriage and mixing of the races under God’s creation and plan.” But the fateful December 21, the day of official desegregation, came and went with what the Montgomery Advertiser called “a calm but cautious acceptance of this significant change in Montgomery’s way of life.” Black and white ministers sat together undisturbed in what had been the “Whites Only” section. Drivers were uniformly courteous. Most white passengers chose to ignore the innovation; those who made nasty remarks were in turn ignored by the blacks.
There was a swift and violent backlash, a flurry of explosions. On the night of January 9, 1957, four Baptist churches were severely damaged by bombs. Ralph Abernathy’s home was virtually destroyed; so was that of Robert Graetz, a young white Lutheran minister who served on the executive board of the M.I.A. A few nights later there was a second attempt to bomb the King home. A filling station across the street was shattered by an explosion, presumably because its owner had given the F.B.I. the license number of a suspicious car. This tip, however, finally led to the arrest of seven white men who confessed to the January 9 attacks.
Their trial marked the final immediate aftermath of the bus boycott. Their defense attorney, John Blue Hill, was paid from funds collected on Montgomery street corners in plastic buckets bearing the exhortation: SAVE OUR SOUTHERN WAY OF LIFE . His fee was rumored to be five thousand dollars in cash per defendant, and among Montgomeryites a joke circulated that he had stopped the bombings by making it too expensive to continue them. In court he summoned the black boycott leaders to the stand and focussed his questioning on their personal lives and sexual preferences. Most of the testimony was stricken, but not before it made the desired impression on the local all-white—and all-male—jury.
The jury’s verdict was rendered with better than deliberate speed, and it was Not Guilty. The bombers left the courtroom with the confident carriage of folk heroes.