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:

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Look Back at People We Lost in 2017

One of the things people do leading up to and just after the start of a new year is to look back at the year just passed and at the events that had an impact on us as a nation, as members of a group or groups, and as individuals. Newspapers, magazines, websites, and podcasts of all sorts do this as a regular part of doing what they do. It is a necessary attempt, I believe to “sum up;" to do that human thing of trying to make sense of what has happened and acknowledging certain things as ‘important’ or “vital” and to construct a narrative. We need to put things in some sort or order and find meaning from that. It is important that we do that.

It also, at least for me, reminds me of the effects of certain people and how what they said or did influenced me. So much of who I am, how I think, and what I do I owe to other people who encouraged me, provided an inspiration, gave me a new idea or new way of looking at things, or helped me see things in a new way. And in 2017, as in all years, I had the opportunity to think back on a number of people who played such a role in my life. I may not have known them personally, but they had an enormous impact on me and my thinking.

Dick Gregory was one such person. His scathing satire and on time stand-up comedy first caught my attention in the 1960’s with his TV appearances, records, and civil rights work. I got to see him live twice, and his pointed humor helped me develop some new ways of looking at this country. Two of his books, nigger, his autobiography, and No More Lies, his correction to the standard high school US history book, both influenced
how and what I taught over my long career in secondary education. While I certainly did not agree with all his positions, reading and listening to him taught me the importance of standing clearly for something and the importance of being willing to go beyond the accepted narrative. That is something that is still with me today, and I owe much of that to Dick Gregory.

Poet, essayist and playwright Derek Walcott introduced me to Caribbean culture and history with the play, Dream on Monkey Island. This allegorical play from the 1970’s found me right at the time I was looking at African and African-American history, and it expanded my research to include Black Caribbean culture as well. His epic poem, Osmero, was shown to me by a friend when we were discussing how ancient the use of poetry as metaphor was. In its use of themes and characters from the works of Homer it opened my eyes to how one could appropriate ideas from another culture and time to talk about what YOU wanted to talk about and say about the present. That struck me as a wonderfully freeing and powerful idea. And when I later taught Homer in some of my classes, I used Osmero to help kids find the relevance in his works to today’s issues. Thank you, Derek, for that.

There were two other major influences on my life whom we lost in 2017: rock and roll inventor Chuck Berry and harp player and singer James Cotton.  I wrote about James in a newsletter last March after hearing about his death. James has influenced me more than any other bluesman, and I was fortunate to meet him many times when I was just starting out as a musician. His willingness to teach, his playing and especially his joy in being on stage are things that are still with me today. Thanks, Superharp.

I came late to Chuck’s work, I am sorry to say. In the late 1950’s when he was breaking out, I was still mostly into old-style blues and soul music. Radio was more segregated and genre-specific then, and I listened to WDAS and WHAT. They were Philly soul stations, and the saxophone was the big instrument in such music. Those stations did not play any guitar-driven rock. But when I got to junior high school, Chuck started to speak to me. It was the cleverness of the rhymes and lyrics which caught me first; I thought it was so cool that someone could put lyrics together like that and do it so fast and in such a rocking way. Then I got into the rhythm and the guitar playing, and when I saw him on TV shows I was knocked out. Again it was the sheer joy of the performance that held me. Music has always been joy to me, and I always loved folks who could put that joy across from the stage. Chuck and James both did that; what a gift.

So as we move on with 2018, I have to tip my hat to these and several other people we lost in 2017. It is good for me to look back and acknowledge how much I owe to these people and to be grateful for their influence. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be me.  So I thank them for helping me be the me I am and the "me" I am still becoming. I could not do it without them, then or now. Thanks to all of you.
(Here are some links to pages about these people: