Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Documenting the Montgomery Bus Boycott

I am teaching my "African Americans and the Politics of Race, from the New Deal to the New Right" course this semester and we have made it to the Montgomery Bus Boycott this week. I have my students looking at some of the primary documents available from that landmark protest and thought I'd share a few with you... (click any document to enlarge)

Here is the law that segregated the busses:

The situation on the busses was degrading for African Americans. Jo Anne Robinson recalled, “I was on my way to the airport when this driver tells me to get to the rear (of the bus). He was standing over me with his hand drawn back saying, ‘Get up from there! Get up from there!’ I felt like a dog. And I got mad after this was over, and I realized that I was a human being and just as intelligent …” Richard Jordan offered this, “The driver would yell out at Negroes to get back in the bus, and swear out in public, ‘damn, dumb Negro.’ ” And, Sadie Brooks, remembered, “Women with babies in their arms had stand over empty seats.”

It is important to remember that Rosa Parks was not the first person to challenge segregation on busses. In fact, because they were one of the few places where black and white came together in segregated Southern society, busses were a regular site of racial challenge and negotiation throughout the Jim Crow era. Claudette Colvin was at the center of a previous incident, but it did not lead to a mass-based protest. Why not? Click here to find out. What Mrs. Parks' protest offered was a good test case that local civil rights leaders could use to challenge the ordinances.

Here is Mrs. Parks' mug shot at the police station after her arrest. Doesn't she look veeeeerrrry threatening? Well, in fact she was. In her defiance, she and other early activists called into question the whole system of white supremacy.
If you still happen to think Rosa Parks was just a tired old woman, instead of a long-time advocate for racial justice who had, in fact, challenged segregation on busses before, then click here.

Unfortunately, we tend to wrap these important historical events around one heroic figure, like Rosa Parks, instead of taking the time to understand that this was a part of an emerging social movement, where many, many people played important roles, from small to large. This "great person" version of history teaches us the wrong lessons about how social change happens. Instead of realizing that it was thousands of impassioned ordinary people who made this revolution, and thus understanding that WE are the engine of social change in our own world today, we sit around waiting for heroic "deliverers" to come and solve our problems.

E.D. Nixon (pictured above) is another key figure in the MBB who has been overshadowed by Parks and Dr. King. Here is a good bio on Nixon and his role in the protest. There were also white folks, like Virginia and Clifford Durr, who also supported the cause. Learn more about them here.

As with many campaigns during the civil rights era, women played a central, though often overlooked, role in the MBB. Jo Anne Robinson (pictured to the right) and the Women's Political Council were especially crucial to the effort in Montgomery. Here is the original call to participate in the boycott, written by Robinson, and secretly mimeographed during the night at a nearby historically black college. This is how a revolution begins:
Here Robinson describes how she and others produced and distributed this leaflet:
I sat down and quickly drafted a message and then called a good friend and colleague... who had access to the college’s mimeograph equipment. When I told him that the WPC was staging a boycott and needed to run off the notices, he told me that he too had suffered embarrassment on the city buses....

Along with two of my most trusted senior students, we quickly agreed to meet almost immediately, in the middle of the night, at the college’s duplicating room. We were able to get three messages to a page... in order to produce the tens of thousands of leaflets we knew would be needed. By 4 a.m. Friday, the sheets had been duplicated, cut in thirds, and bundled....

Between 4 and 7 a.m., the two students and I mapped out distribution routes for the notices. Some of the WPC officers previously had discussed how and where to deliver thousands of leaflets announcing a boycott, and those plans now stood me in good stead....

After class my two students and I quickly finalized our plans for distributing the thousands of leaflets so that one would reach every black home in Montgomery. I took out the WPC membership roster and called [them].... I alerted all of them to the forthcoming distribution of the leaflets, and enlisted their aid in speeding and organizing the distribution network....

Throughout the late morning and early afternoon hours we dropped off tens of thousands of leaflets. Some of our bundles were dropped off at schools.... Leaflets were also dropped off at business places, storefronts, beauty parlors, beer halls, factories, barber shops, and every other available place. Workers would pass along notices both to other employees as well as to customers....

By 2 o’clock thousands of the mimeographed handbills had changed hands many times. Practically every black man, woman, and child in Montgomery knew the plan and was passing the word along...

Thousands of local African Americans supported the MBB, a protest that lasted 381 days. Think of how hard it is to organize people in your community to come out one time for an event. Think of how hard it is to get those folks to come back for a second night. Now, consider the mind-boggling challenge of keeping a community behind a protest for over a year!

The boycott stretched more than a year, its thousands of participants resolute throughout. Montgomery’s black citizens needed the buses during that year, of course, but they stayed away week after long week. Some could share cars, but many walked for miles, to work, to the store, and in all kinds of weather. Organizers of the protest arranged carpools and made lunches for those participating in the boycott. These were the simple, everyday, often overlooked, heroic acts of the campaign. One participant, Gussie Nesbitt, explained, “I walked because I wanted everything to be better for us. … I wanted to be one of them that tried to make it better. I didn’t want somebody else to make it better for me. I walked. I never attempted to take the bus. Never. I was tired, but I didn’t have no desire to get on the bus.”

This is what one local African American woman, who worked as a maid in a white household, had to say about the MBB:
Maid: This stuff has been going on for a long time. To tell you the truth, it’s been happening ever since I came here before [World War II]. But here in the last few years they’ve been getting worse and worse. When you get on the bus they yell: "Get on back there"... and half of the time they wouldn’t take your transfer, then they make you get up so white men could sit down where there were no seats in the back. And you know about a year ago they put one of the high school girls in jail 'cause she wouldn't move. They should have boycotted the buses then. But we are sure fixing 'em now and I hope we don’t ever start back riding... We [are] people, we are not dogs or cats.... All we want 'em to do is treat us right. They shouldn’t make me get up for some white person when I paid the same fare and I got on first. And they should stop being so nasty.... We pay just like the white folks....

[The bus companies] are the ones losing the money and our preachers say we will not ride unless they give us what we want.... You see the business men are losing money too, because people only go to town when they have to.... When you do something to my people you do it to me too....

Dr. King, at the ripe old age of 26, was asked to head the new Montgomery Improvement Association, the organizational lead of the MBB. Here is what King told a crowd at one of the MIA's many mass meetings:
Democracy gives us this right to protest and that is all we’re doing.... We can say honestly that we have not advocated violence, have not practiced it and have gone courageously on with a Christian movement. Ours is a spiritual movement depending on moral and spiritual fortitude. The protest is still going on. (Great deal of applause here)....

Freedom doesn’t come on a silver platter. With every great movement toward freedom there will inevitably be trials. Somebody will have to have the courage to sacrifice. You don’t get to the Promised Land without going through the Wilderness. You don’t get there without crossing over hills and mountains, but if you keep on keeping on, you can’t help but reach it. We won’t all see it, but it’s coming and it’s because God is for it....

We won’t back down. We are going on with our movement.

Let us continue with the same spirit, with the same orderliness, with the same discipline, with the same Christian approach. I believe that God is using Montgomery as his proving ground.... God be praised for you, for your loyalty, for your determination. God bless you and keep you, and may God be with us as we go on.

Here are the initial demands of the MIA. Note that it isn't just about bus seating. Segregation on busses was a way in to an attack on the entire Jim Crow system:

But, of course, many local whites opposed the MBB. Here is the text from a handbill that was given out at a 1956 rally in Montgomery organized by the Central Alabama Citizens Council. 10,000 white citizens attended. Leaders of Montgomery’s local government—including Mayor Gayle—spoke to the crowd about preventing integration.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, sling shots and knives.

We hold these truths to be self evident that all whites are created equal with certain rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.

In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers. The conduct should not be dwelt upon because behind them they have an ancestral background of Pigmies, head hunters and snot suckers.

My friends it is time we wised up to these black devils. I tell you they are a group of two legged agitators who persist in walking up and down our streets protruding their black lips. If we don’t stop helping these African flesh eaters, we will soon wake up and find Rev. King in the White House.

LET’S GET ON THE BALL WHITE CITIZENS.

The Book "Declaration of Segregation" will appear April, 1956. If this appeals to you be sure to read the book.

And the forces of reaction and white supremacy meant business. In fact, Dr. King's home was bombed during the campaign. Here is the front page of the newspaper that day.

Even with all kinds of legal and extra-legal repression aimed at the boycotters, they were able to organize an effective campaign. Here is a good article from the Montgomery newspaper about the "mechanics of the protest." And, in the end, the collective power of Montgomery's black community prevailed. Here is the front page of the newspaper the day victory was achieved in the MBB.

Even after the MMB won victory in court in 1956, the battle had just begun. Just because a law changes, or a court decision is won, does not mean anything really changes on the ground. Real live humans have to then deal with each other in these new situations and a process of social and racial renegotiation takes place. Here is the flyer the MIA distributed to local people regarding how they might act on newly integrated busses in Montgomery:
Here is a political cartoon from The Militant, a white, lefty/labor newspaper. It suggests the bigger meaning of what happened in Montgomery in 1955-56:
In the end, the MBB DID NOT end segregation in Montgomery, or across the South. It would take more time and struggle for that. The court decision was narrowly aimed at bussing in Montgomery. But, the MBB did offer a second early victory for the Movement, fast on the heals of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. As such, it brought the Movement increased national and international attention, heightened the expectations of African Americans and their allies about further progress and increased the organizing efforts of people across the region. Moreover, the MBB demonstrated again, as had the 1941 March on Washington Movement or the 1942 Congress of Racial Equality sit-ins in Chicago and Washington, D.C., that non-violent direct action could be a powerful tool in challenging white supremacy. And, of course, it was the MBB that initially brought a young 26 year old preacher to national attention...

Here is to the contribution of all those, known and unknown, who participated in this historic campaign. They are an important part in the ongoing history of justice and human rights!

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