February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
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
A neatly dressed, middle-aged black woman was riding home on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus on the evening of Thursday, December 1, 1955. Her lap was full of groceries, which she was going to have to carry home from the bus stop, and her feet were tired from a long day’s work.
Mrs. Rosa Parks was sitting in the first row of seats behind the section marked “Whites Only.” When she chose this seat, there had been plenty of empty ones both in front of and behind the “Great Divide.” Now they were all occupied, and black passengers were standing in the aisle at the rear.
Then two white men got aboard. They dropped their dimes into the fare box. The driver called over his shoulder, “Niggers move back.” Three of the passengers obediently rose from their seats in the black section and stood in the aisle. Rosa Parks did not.
Even when the driver repeated his order and heads turned to see who was “making trouble,” she sat as if she hadn’t heard. The driver swore under his breath, pulled over to the curb, put on the brakes, and came to stand above her.
“I said to move back. You hear?”
All conversation stopped. No one dared move. Mrs. Parks continued to stare out the window at the darkness. The driver waited. Sounds of other traffic dramatized the silence in the bus.
It was a historic moment: the birth of a movement that was to challenge and ultimately change the social patterns that had established themselves in most Americans’ minds as a way of life which was traditional and deeply rooted in the South.
Actually, that tradition of racial segregation—loosely nicknamed Jim Crow—was not as venerable as most of its adherents believed. Many segregation laws—especially those concerned with public transportation—only dated from the turn of the twentieth century, and at the start had been resisted, through boycotts, by southern blacks, sometimes successfully. But by 1906 resistance had worn itself out. And in the intervening fifty years the memory had also worn itself out. E. D. Nixon, the man who proposed the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56, had never heard of the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1900–1902. In fact he did not even know that boycotts were again being tried—without much success—in a few southern cities; for example, Baton Rouge.
Nixon was a leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the founders of both the Alabama state and the Montgomery city branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. For almost a year before the night of Mrs. Parks’s refusal to give up her seat, he had been trying to persuade Montgomery’s black community that “the only way to make the power structure do away with segregation on the buses was to take some money out of their pockets.”
Few aspects of Jim Crow life were as galling to Montgomery blacks as travel on the city’s bus line, which most of them had to use to get to and from work, school, and the central shopping district. There were runs on which a white passenger was a curiosity. Yet the first four rows of seats (ten places) were permanently reserved for whites. And blacks sitting behind those rows could be told to vacate their seats if whites got on after the reserved section was filled.
Blacks also had to endure discourtesy and sometimes hostility from many drivers, all of whom were white. Some used insulting language; others picked quarrels and put blacks off the bus for real or imagined offenses. Some played a peculiarly tormenting practical joke. Since all fares had to be deposited in the box beside the driver, every passenger had to get on by the front door. Blacks then had to get off the bus and board from the rear. The game was to wait until a black passenger got outside, slam the two doors, and drive off, leaving him standing on the curb without his dime.
Resentment was wide and deep in the black community. Some whites, too, were known to disapprove of the bus drivers’ harassments. And even among the die-hard segregationists, the mixing of races on a public bus was hardly the emotionally charged issue that integrated schools, or parks, or swimming pools, were. For all these reasons, in the months following the United States Supreme Court ruling of May, 1954, against segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education , black leaders all over the South had been arguing that city bus lines were the next appropriate target for the integration movement.
In Montgomery three individual blacks, all women, had refused to give up their seats when ordered. In each case Nixon and the Montgomery NAACP had vainly tried to rally the black community to some sort of effective protest.
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.”
Mrs. Nixon told her husband he was “just plain crazy.” “If headaches was selling for a dollar a dozen,” she said, “you’d be the guy who’d go into a drug store and ask the man to put some in a bag.” She didn’t believe sympathy for Mrs. Parks was going to keep people off the buses “when it’s as cold as this, and Christmas coming on.”
There was some cause for pessimism. Montgomery’s black community of fifty thousand persons was, in one observer’s phrase, “as casteridden as any country in the world except India.” No issue and no leader had yet managed to bring anything resembling unity out of its political, religious, economic, and cultural diversity. There might be strong support for Mrs. Parks in the professional group (made up in the main of faculty members from Alabama State College), but those people did not use public transportation. The working people, who did, depended on the buses to get to their jobs and on their jobs to feed and shelter their families. The risk of losing even a single day’s pay was too much to ask of the head of a household already living on the edge of poverty.
But Nixon was determined to ask just that and more. Before he went to bed that night he planned a meeting of some forty people for the next day at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a leaflet calling for a oneday bus boycott, and a Monday evening mass meeting to organize further action. He hoped to find a leader to carry on while he was out of town on his job.
Among the local blacks whom Nixon summoned was the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a militant young Baptist preacher wholeheartedly in agreement with the plan and eager to get to work. There was also the Reverend H. H. Hubbard, head of the Baptist Ministerial Alliance. The Baptists were the largest denomination in the black community, so Hubbard’s promise to cooperate in notifying his associates was crucial, and Nixon was elated to get it. Thus encouraged, he called young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the new pastor of the Dexter Avenue church.
It was a fateful contact. Neither man could foresee that it would put young Dr. King on the road to national and historic importance, a Nobel Prize, and, ultimately, death at an assassin’s hand. The future leader was then merely a recently arrived young minister of a fashionable Negro church in a southern town, well educated in the North, with a doctorate from Boston University, but with no other distinctions or activist record. Busy with his new duties, in fact, and the responsibilities of a young baby at home, he had only recently turned down the presidency of the local NAACP , and he told Nixon that while the protest organizers were welcome to meet in his church, he was not sure of his own participation. But he soon changed his mind and, with it, his destiny.
The meeting of more than forty people that afternoon quickly agreed to a one-day boycott of the city buses on the day of Mrs. Parks’s trial. When it came to agreeing on demands, however, the initial unity was threatening to dissolve until someone pointed out that demands were unimportant compared to the practical problem of spreading the word quickly. There was no black “ghetto” in Montgomery. Negroes lived everywhere in and around the city. A volunteer phone committee could start work at once, but many black families were without phones—and radios or TV sets—and did not take newspapers. Leaflets, which Abernathy had wanted mimeographed immediately on hearing from Nixon, could be passed out at stores where Saturday shoppers congregated. Announcements could be made from church pulpits on Sunday, provided that every minister in town could be persuaded that the notice was important enough not to be ignored.
Transportation was a more serious problem. The first draft of the leaflet said: ”… take a car, or share a ride, or walk .” But thousands lived too far from their jobs to walk, had no car, and knew no one with whom to share. For them some alternative way of getting to work on Monday had to be found, or the protest would not achieve the 50 per cent cut in company revenues that was the agreed target.
“omeone suggested appealing to the Negro cab companies, asking them to pick up pedestrians and carry them to their destination for the ten-cent bus fare. (Segregation was so complete in Montgomery that only cabs driven by blacks and marked “Colored” were permitted to carry black passengers. The eighteen such companies and their 210 black drivers would prove a strong help in the first days of the boycott.)
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!’”
King’s education equipped him to talk to Montgomery’s white leaders in their own terms. King had a reputation for courage, too. As Nixon said, “You knew he wasn’t any white man’s nigger.” And he had not been in Montgomery long enough to become entangled in any of the factional struggles that divided the black community.
Abernathy agreed that King was a good choice, but thought he would decline. So it was decided to nominate him without warning at a session of the “planning committee”—which would frame resolutions to present to the mass meeting. King was so astonished by the very fact of his election—it was unanimous—that he put up no resistance, confessing later that if he had had time to think, he would have almost certainly refused. Immediately afterward he received a tough assignment : presenting to the crowd not merely the routine matters of choosing a name and officers but the hard choice of whether to continue the boycott or merely threaten to renew it if demands were not met. That decision, clearly, had to be made by those who would carry it out: the thousands of humble people who had walked on this cold, gray morning. Many of them would be present at the Holt Street Baptist Church, and they would there be asked to vote on whether they could sustain their incredible initial momentum by approving a recommendation to continue.
By the seven o’clock meeting time there was not a seat empty in the Holt Street church. Loudspeakers had been installed on the roof to accommodate latecomers who might not find room inside. It took Dr. King fifteen minutes to work his way through the crowd from his car, and ten more to get to the platform after he was inside. The audience was singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” when he joined Nixon, Abernathy, a number of other ministers, Mrs. Parks, and Fred Gray. After the ritual of prayer and scripture reading—with which all such meetings open in the South—and an ovation for Mrs. Parks, E. D. Nixon rose, glancing at Montgomery’s police commissioner, whom he saw seated in one of the pews.
“Before you brothers and sisters get comfortable in your seats,” Nixon began, “I want to say if anybody here is afraid, he better take his hat and go home. This is going to be a long, drawn-out affair, and before it’s over, somebody’s going to die.”
There were loud amens, but no one reached for his hat. Nixon then delivered a rouser in favor of continuing the boycott, ending with the challenge: “We’ve worn aprons long enough. It’s time for us to take them off!”
The next speaker was Martin Luther King, Jr. He came to the rostrum almost completely unprepared for what he knew by now would be one of the most important addresses of his life. There had hardly been time in the two hours since he had been given this task to think through the basic purpose of his speech. His analysis had gone as far as dividing it into two possibly contradictory aims: the first, to drain off the anger of those who were “tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression"—anger that might lead to violence of which he disapproved; and a second, to “keep them courageous and prepared for action.” Or, as he put it in another place, the problem was to be militant and moderate at the same time. To make things more difficult, he would have to face the microphones and lights of television crews, for news of the morning’s action had focussed national attention on Montgomery.
King rose to the moment. Pulpit oratory, once a typical American art, is obsolete in most parts of the country today. But it lingers on in the black South, and King’s sermon was a classic production. Stating the Christian case for nonviolent protest, he said: “We have been amazingly patient … but we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.” Though he roused his audience at first by shouting, “We are tired. Tired of being segregated and humiliated,” he brought them down to calmness again by declaring, “Once again we must hear the words of Jesus. ‘Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history. … We must not become bitter and end up by hating our white brothers.” And in a final chord, he wooed them to their better selves.
“If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, future historians will say, ‘There lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.”
The audience rose, cheering, and one elderly woman remembered afterward the feeling that she “saw angels standing all around him when he finished, and they were lifting him up on their wings! ”
Even before Ralph Abernathy read the recommendation, the verdict was in. It was, in Clifford Durr’s recollection, “a grass roots verdict if there ever was one. Some of the [black] middle-class professionals were saying, ‘Well, we showed them this morning.’ But the maids and the cooks, the ones who had done the walking, were saying, ‘We haven’t showed them a thing yet! But we’re going to stay off those buses until they make up their minds to treat us decently.’”
For the first few days this unanimous determination created a euphoric optimism. In view of the unprecedented effectiveness of the boycott and the willingness of the Montgomery Improvement Association to settle for a partial victory such as first-come first-served seating through separate doors, it was generally believed that there would be a negotiated settlement. But on Thursday, December 8, when Abernathy’s committee met with the City Commission, the bus company attorney, Jack Crenshaw, once more insisted that the Alabama law required continued total segregation. City officials were taking a hard line, too. It was clear that they did not want a Negro victory to stimulate further challenges. And a hint was dropped of strong action to come. The city code set a minimum cab fare of forty-five cents per passenger. Negro taxi companies might soon be forbidden to take passengers at ten cents per trip. The next day that threat did materialize. But fortunately, on Thursday evening there had been one of the twice-weekly meetings planned for the boycott’s duration as a way of exchanging information, squelching rumors, boosting morale, and ratifying decisions. Anticipating the city’s action, the chairman had appealed for volunteer drivers. One hundred and fifty names were handed in. Next, Rufus Lewis’s Transportation Committee sat up all night, working out the details of a system which utilized the whole intricate network of black institutions that had grown up under the hothouse conditions of total segregation.
On Tuesday, just a week after the first day of the boycott, thousands of leaflets were ready for distribution, showing on a map of the city the location of forty-eight dispatch and forty-two pick-up stations, with the hours at which each would be operative. There were plenty of problems still. Dispatch stations for sending people off” to work were easy to locate in Negro neighborhoods, and churches could shelter riders who had to wait in bad weather. But after-hours pick-up stations had to be in less friendly territory. Without the intimate knowledge of Montgomery’s white neighborhoods supplied by black mail carriers, this part of the plan would have been impossible to design. There were never quite enough volunteer dispatchers at rush hours. Cars sometimes broke down, and so, occasionally, did the tempers of passengers and drivers. But overall, the car pools worked as well as, if not better than, the old bus system. And their impact as a unifying force in the black community was incalculable.
It was expensive, but help came from two unexpected sources. As the “Montgomery Story” was spread throughout the country by the news media, contributions began coming in to the M.I.A. from cities in the North and West. Black churches took up collections to buy station wagons, which were presented to Montgomery churches of the same denominations for car-pool use.
The load was also lightened by some white Montgomery housewives, who entered into a sort of conspiracy with their black domestics. Accepting the police commissioner’s fiction about “goon squads,” these women began to drive their maids and cooks to and from work, “to protect them from harassment.” When the mayor protested that this gave aid and comfort to the boycott, ladies wrote letters to the newspaper suggesting that he provide them with other help before telling them how to run their households.
As weeks went by without the blacks yielding, threats of violence began to be directed against the leadership of the M.I.A. King, Abernathy, Nixon, and other officers started to receive hate mail and phone calls warning them to “get out of town or else. …” Then, on January 30, the ugliness erupted.
On that night, while Dr. King was attending one of the regular mass meetings, a bomb tossed onto the porch of his house exploded seconds later with a shattering roar. Having heard the thud as the missile landed, Mrs. King and a visiting friend had moved quickly toward the rear of the house. They and the Kings’s infant daughter escaped injury. But it looked for a time as if the chief casualty of the night would be the concept of nonviolence to which the Negroes had so far been held by their leaders.
Rushing home, King found an angry crowd milling on his lawn. As he stepped from his car, he heard one black man offer to shoot it out with a white policeman who was trying to push him back. Mayor W. A. “Jackie” Gayle and Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers were on hand, along with white reporters and the police. The mood of the crowd was so hostile that all of them later reported having felt that a race riot was a distinct and immediate possibility.
Dr. King went into his house, assured himself that his family was all right, and then came back to speak to the crowd. His voice was unusually quiet, and everyone else stopped speaking or moving, to listen.
“My wife and baby are all right,” he told them. “I want you to go home and put down your weapons. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. … We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out across the centuries, ‘Love your enemies.’ This is what we must live by.” Then, his voice swelling with emotion, he added: “Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with this movement.”
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.
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.
Nevertheless, in the long run, their triumph was overshadowed, for at the very moment when the four churches were being attacked, the M.I.A. leadership was in Nashville laying plans for a new organization: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Its president was Martin Luther King, Jr.; its basic philosophy was militant nonviolence. Ahead lay many events: sit-ins, freedom rides, gunfire on the campus of the University of Mississippi, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, the summers of rioting in northern cities—and then, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in a Memphis motel. Perhaps it would take the decade of the seventies to discover the full meaning of the record that began with the Montgomery boycott. But in that January of 1957, as integrated buses rolled down the streets of the Confederacy’s first capital, over which the Stars and Bars still flew, almost everyone must have sensed that a new page in the history of black (and white) Americans had been turned.