Friday, January 12, 2018

Beyond the Headlines: The Reverend Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955

Monday, January 15th marks the 32nd national observance of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth. This year the holiday is observed on his actual birthday, which I always find somehow pleasing. With the Federal law mandating us to observe national holidays on Mondays, we sometimes forget when a person was really born, and I think we lose something when that happens. Initially, Ididn’t favor a “King Holiday.” I thought a more powerful and effective tribute would be if people just took January 15th off on their own and did something appropriate-sort of a nationwide act of civil disobedience. That did not happen, so I was feeling nervous in 1986 when the holiday was first observed. I feared that we would soon see a parade of “Martin Luther King Day Sales” in department and furniture stores and in auto showrooms; we would blow right past the messages embodied by his life and by his actions. But before that could happen Georgia Representative John Lewis and PA Senator Harris Wofford co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act. Both men had marched and worked with Dr. King, and the act they wrote encouraged Americans to honor the holiday by performing acts of service in honor of Dr. King. It was signed into law in 1994, and the idea caught on. Numerous civic organizations, cities, and towns all over the country developed volunteer activities for people of all ages, ranging from feeding the homeless, to repairing school playgrounds, to fixing up houses, planting gardens, and more. 32 years later the holiday is still seen as “The Martin Luther King Day of Service,” and Philadelphia continues to lead the nation both in the number of service opportunities offered AND in the number of participants. My fears, I am glad to say, were not realized.

King, of course, stands in the nation’s mind as the symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. His quotes about the power of love in the face of hatred and about nonviolence being the way to meet injustice are often quoted around the world. His famous “I Have a Dream Speech” from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice is replayed and recited numerous times on his birthday, everywhere from elementary schools, to dinners and breakfasts, to marches, community celebrations, and on newscasts. He and Rosa Parks are often seen as “birth parents” of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott often being seen as the “birth event.” Montgomery was hugely important, of course, but seeing it as the birth event of the civil rights movement is far from accurate: there have been organized efforts to address the problems facing African Americans since colonial times. The NAACP had gone to court and won some travel segregation cases years before 1955, and there had been constant civil rights activity before the boycott all across the country. What Montgomery and its boycott marked was not the “birth of the movement.” What it marked was the birth of national awareness and attention to the movement. Civil Rights was now a nationwide issue and could not be ignored. Many people also tend to see Dr. King as the leader of the bus boycott, and that is not quite accurate, either. He did become the face of the boycott, but the reality of how that movement happened was more complicated and nuanced than the popular story has it. And it involves at least two other people who have not gotten much recognition due them but without whom there may never have been a boycott.

When Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to surrender her seat to a white passenger, she was not just “a woman tired from a long day of work.”  She had already been involved in the civil rights struggle. She had attended sessions on both race relations and civil disobedience at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. She had been secretary for the Montgomery branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She had investigated cases of sexual assault by white men against black women for the NAACP. And she had had an earlier unpleasant interaction with James Blake, the December 1 bus driver. Unlike the stories frequently told about her, she had been an activist for a while. and she had had enough.

In between Rosa’s arrest on December 1st and her trial on Monday, December 5th two notable things happened, both involving people who were pivotal in what became the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Jo Ann Robinson, leader of the Woman’s Political Council, had complained about Jim Crow segregated travel before. In fact she had warned the mayor of Montgomery in 1954 that a boycott would come soon to attack and overthrow the system. When word of Rosa’s arrest became known, she saw her chance. Jo Ann and her family, along with some associates, hand mimeographed and distributed some 35,000 flyers throughout the black community on Friday night and Saturday calling for a one-day boycott of the city buses on Monday, December 5- the day of Rosa’s trial.  On Saturday, December 3rd, many of Montgomery’s African-Americans had heard about the planned action, and many of them did not ride the buses that Saturday. And come Monday, December 5th, the vast majority of Blacks didn’t ride. Buses were nearly empty, and the one-day boycott was a success. Monday night there was to be a mass meeting to see if the boycott should be continued. 

Meanwhile, E.D. Nixon, head of the Montgomery NAACP and a labor leader, called a meeting of local Black ministers to discuss plans to respond to Rosa’s arrest. He, too, had been wanting to take action for years, and he, too, saw an opportunity. When Nixon met with the ministers he suggested they resolve to take further action, that they call themselves, The Montgomery Improvement Association, and that they choose a young minister new to Montgomery to be their spokesperson. He felt that a new person had not yet had time to be either intimidated or known by the city’s power structure and could be more effective. The ministers agreed, and they chose the 26 year-old Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to be their spokesperson. At that mass meeting Monday evening King made a short and very well received speech. The assembled crowd decided to continue the boycott, and King became the visible leader of the movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was now under way, largely due to the efforts of Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon.
Both Robinson and Nixon took very important roles during the boycott. Robinson had to be careful: she was a professor and could have lost her job. So she worked behind the scenes, editing the MIA’s weekly newsletterand  arranging schedules for carpools, Black-owned taxis, and groups of people to walk together. She and the Women’s Political Council also raised money. Nixon was a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a nationwide black labor union. Through them he was able to raise badly needed money to buy and repair cars for the carpools, post bails, hire lawyers, and get food and other supplies. Along with Ralph Abernathy and other leaders, he also advised Dr. King and helped plan strategies to keep the pressure on the city despite the increased efforts by many whites-violent and non-violent- to break the boycott. Most importantly, Nixon recognized the power of the newly developed technology of television, and he saw what a perfect fit Dr. King was for it. He arranged to get Dr. King and the boycott repeatedly in front of national network news cameras and making what had been a local issue a national one. TV took both Dr. King and civil rights to a national and international stage, energizing the boycott, generating interest in civil rights, and giving it more recognition and support.

Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon are heroes of mine. I like to think of them as human versions of infrastructure; that necessary thing that holds something up, keeps it going, and enables it to function. Both of them played huge roles in keeping the boycott going-shoring up people’s spirits, keeping it organized, standing up to arrests, attacks and bombings, and helping maintain it for over a year. Without the two of them it is easy to imagine the boycott not being effective. They were crucial to its eventual success.

And as I think on Dr. King’s life over this next week I also like to think about all of those unsung people who played such vital parts throughout the movement: in the bus boycott, the voter registration activities, the marches, and more. I have to thank the ones who walked during the boycott, drove cars, got arrested, donated, listened, and sang the freedom songs. I have to acknowledge all of them. Particularly in this day and time it is important to remember that effective movements are about more than one leader, one organization or one event. There must be a strong and stable “us”-a committed, consistent, and long-lasting group of people willing and able to endure whatever it takes to sustain the movement and keep it going. It takes a village to raise a movement, and as Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon demonstrated, that human infrastructure is essential. Thank you, Jo Ann and E.D. You may be largely unknown, but your works are not.

Websites about Jo Ann Robinson and E.D. Nixon:

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