[Fred Halstead was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party who visited Montgomery in March of 1956 to report on — and support — the Bus Boycott. Below is a transcript of handwritten pages that appear to be first-drafts of two articles most likely intended for the Militant, the SWP's party newspaper.]
March 4, 1956. Montgomery & Birmingham
The Alabama legislature is presently meeting here in a special session convened March 1 to discuss the educational budget, but kept alive to be ready to counter any anti-segregation moves quickly.
Opening day a number of bills attacking desegregation were introduced. One, which passed the Senate without dissent and is now before a house committee would ask the U.S. Congress to spread "negroes among the several Northern and Western States, the areas where negroes are wanted and can be assimilated."
Another which is halfway through the legislature would establish a committee to investigate any group "suspected of having subversive tendencies." It specifically mentions the N.A.A.C.P. and the Communist Party. This bill is expected to pass. It would allow the racist legislators to subpoena witness and records.
A third measure would make available to the racist legislators the names of those Alabama University Students who petitioned the school to reinstate negro co-ed Autherine Lucy.
I attended the March 2 session of this legislature to see these representatives of the "Southern way of life". When I entered the Capitol, both houses were in session together as a committee-of-the whole to discuss cuts in the proposed educational budget.
A committee member was reading a report listing the proposed cuts, (the all white Un. of Ala with 7,000 enrolled was cut $205,000, while the all Negro Ala. State Col. with enrollment of 2,500 was cut $250,000.)
Some of the Solons lounged in their leather padded chairs, reading newspapers and drinking cokes. A few listened attentively. One fat, white haired legislator lay sprawled across three chairs. On the wall behind the speaker's table could be seen a large plaque inscribed: "In this hall the ordinance of Secession which withdrew Alabama from the Union of Sovereign States was passed Jan. 11, 1861."
I wouldn't really blame the lounging law makers, the discussion was dull. At length, one athletic looking young representative took the mike to speak against further cuts for the University of Alabama:
"We must remember how courageously the president of that University faced a court decision ordering him to do something which he could not do because it was directly opposed to the desires of the people of Alabama."
The people of Alabama! They are poorly represented [unclear 5 words], the negroes, are not represented at all, except by [words unclear] State Prison inmates who open windows and turn on fans for the comfort of these "representatives of the people."
The white majority is not represented either. A few thousand plantation-owner-controlled votes from the "black belt" counties send more representatives here than the State's major population centers are allowed.
I left the ancient hall and went into the streets of Montgomery to ask a few people what they thought of the legislation introduced the day before.
The bill to "spread the negroes through the north", was taken seriously by no one. Said a white gas attendant: "Those fellows on the hill must be gettin' panicky. I wish they wouldn't do things like that. I'm for segregation, but you can't make people leave their home."
A white taxi driver commented "If they cancel my debts and give me a train ticket, I'll leave Alabama too."
The other two measures, to establish "subversive" investigation and to reveal the names of petitioners were taken more seriously.
Said one lean white man: "I don't think they'll get anywhere with this boycott. That Lucy gal didn't get anywhere. The legislation ties 'em up, and [unclear 3 words] into [unclear word] that's about what we've got to do. Tie 'em up in the law, they won't get [words unclear]." This man spoke calmly, without apparent anger, as did all the whites I talked too with the exception of one. He said "I'd like to get my hands on that list of nigger-lovers (the petitioners for reinstatement of Miss Lucy). We know how to deal with them kind."
Most whites simply wouldn't talk about the subject freely with strangers. If they talk about it at length among themselves they don't do it obviously. Certainly there is no obvious wide spread hysteria at the present moment. Life goes as usual, and ordinary subjects start conversations off. It often touches the Lucy case or racist legislation which subjects appear on the front pages of the newspapers, but there seems to be reluctance to speak about the Montgomery events.
I asked a white carpenter what he thought of the "boycott". He said: "I don't own the bus company."
"Do you think the bus co. should grant their demands?" "Then what do you think they should do?" "I don't know. I don't own the bus co. as far as I'm concerned they can keep walking forever. It don't hurt me none."
Some whites are sympathetic to the "protest." Aubrey Williams, Publisher of the Southern Farmer, and President of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, and an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow for many years, appeared at the courthouse to offer bond for the arrested protest leaders. His money was not needed, however. He was the only white to do so.
One white woman behind the counter of a store where I had stopped hesitated when I asked how to get to a certain address. "Well," she said, "There's a bus goes out there. That is if you want to take a bus." she hesitated again. "If you've got the money you can take a taxi." I thanked her and turned. As I passed through the door she called after me. "I always walk myself, lately, its spring, you know."
The files of the local paper, the Montgomery Advertiser reveal that at the beginning of the protest movement last December there was widespread sympathy among whites with the protest. Letters to the editor citing instances of rudeness toward negroes on the [unclear words] uncommon in the December issues of the [unclear line] the negroes had "legitimate grievance."
Since the three man city commission joined the white citizens council, and the Mayor announced his get tough policy, however, the paper had blacked out all news on the movement except official statements and legal actions, and has adopted a friendly tone toward the White Citizens Council (WCC).
One of the protest leaders told me, "When it became known that a certain white woman had helped us out a little when this protest first began, she was hounded by phone calls in the middle of the night, and threats, and I don't know what all. Why they made that poor woman so nervous she had to leave this town she'd been livin' in all her life. She had to go away to get a rest."
Everyone agrees that the strength of the WCC has grown considerably since the Montgomery and Tuscaloosa events. It's membership in this county has been estimated at 12,000.
The meeting held (last month, please check the date), at which Sen. Eastland spoke was attended by about that many. A white reporter who had been there said. "I was surprised at the character of the people there. I had expected a bunch of [unclear line] crowd appeared almost entirely middle class." Of course, there aren't many factory workers near here.
Applications for WCC membership are easy to get. I picked one up in the white waiting room of the railway station. Ads from the WCC occasionally appear in the newspapers.
This is pre election time here, and statements from politicians that they are willing to "die" for segregation are not uncommon, but I have yet to hear a white worker say anything like that. It is true that they don't talk freely with strangers, but in my opinion that is also significant. I have talked to many white racists before, and they always seemed obnoxiously outspoken about their attitude, with anyone who would listen. This is certainly not the case here now, among the ordinary people.
The WCC's are semi secret organizations controlled from the top following policy which is not discussed by or based on the interests of the white masses in the South. They are not yet, apparently, a mass movement, but are capable of effectively intimidating by economic pressure and physical violence any whites who sympathize with the struggling of the negroes for equality.
The big thing here, and possibly the thing that has many of the white racists confused, and accounts for their reluctance to talks about the protest is that they are no longer capable of intimidating the negroes, at least in Montgomery.
A number of students at the all negro Alabama State College here told me that a cross had been burned on the negro campus the day before Miss Lucy was to attend her first class at Ala. U. "We just all went out and watched it. We didn't run and hide like people used to do. These things don't scare us anymore," said one student. "These threats don't scare anyone anymore" said another."
I asked them about the reported firings of negroes who had participated in the bus boycott. You don't seem to understand" one young student said. "Nothing is going to scare us." And another: "I think very few lost jobs. It was just a rumor to scare people, but it only made them mad." And another: "These department stores and businesses downtown aren't going to fire anyone, they all be too easily effected by a boycott themselves."
It is spring in Alabama. The pine covered hills between Birmingham and Montgomery are bright new green in the clearings, and patched here and there with red-outcropping of iron ore. The red diminishes and the green increases as you approach Montgomery. The Greyhound bus moves into the city before it is out of the hills; an old city, clean and quiet, slow moving at first glance, a tall building catches your eye, painted high on its old brick side — Jefferson Davis Hotel. The street signs move past the window — Washington, Lee, Montgomery. Rich part-filled names, for wide old streets, broken by hills and squares. Not like the efficient numbered streets and avenues in Birmingham's even grid.
Though it has one fourth the population, Montgomery's downtown seems larger at first sight than Birmingham's [unclear word] There aren't the even rows of tall office buildings, or the smoke stakes, or mills with heaps of coal and ingots and loud whistles, but there is an air of spaciousness, like a town [unclear] for living rather than work. There are large shops and houses and many more [unclear] buildings than in the larger city 90 miles to the North. This is, after all, the capitol of the State. Its railroad station seems larger, though emptier than Birmingham's two combined.
There are less of the wooden shacks standing off raw ground on foot high blocks of brick than in Birmingham. Up there, these largely unpainted, poorly repaired dwellings cover whole hillsides sloping away from mills and factories and mines and railroads, and are inhabited by white and negro worker alike, through generally in somewhat separate sections.
Here they exist, but not obviously or at first view. There are small clean brick and frame houses with lawns and gardens. Many are old, and cracked masonry and sidewalks — or no sidewalks at all are not rare, but the trees and vines, and lawns seem to respond more effectively here to cover the cracks, and brighten the eye. There are more, though really not many, of the blocks like ante-bellum type mansions with the tall Greek columns across the front. The columns appear like gleaming white marble, but closer examination, or a brush of dark suit reveals them white-wash painted.
The bus stopped in the depot, the Negro passenger, who had occupied the last three rows of seats, remained slated or stood in the aisle until the white passenger dismounted. COLORED WAITING ROOM, WHITE WAITING ROOM, said the signs on the two doors that the passengers entered on leaving the bus.
The railroad station in Birmingham had the "colored" and "white" newly painted over, but signs replaced them. They said INTRA-STATE Passengers, Colored Waiting Room, and INTER-STATE AND WHITE INTRA-STATE PASSENGERS WAITING ROOM. Even the colored inter-state passengers entered the colored waiting room, The same device was apparently considered un-necessary here in Montgomery.
[Recent Federal court rulings and Interstate Commerce Commission regulations prohibited racial segregation in facilities used for inter-state (between states) travel. This meant that Blacks traveling to or from other states were legally entitled to use "white" facilities despite local segregation ordinances. But those court rulings and regulations did not apply to intra-state (within the state) travel. So the signs in the Birmingham station were intended to comply with the letter, rather than the spirit, of the desegregation orders. As a practical matter, Blacks knew that if they entered the white waiting room they would risk a beating and then suffer certain arrest on charges such as "Disturbing the Peace" or "Disorderly Conduct."
The juke box in the white waiting room (much larger than the colored one) played "The Poor People of Paris."
A tall young woman with chiseled features, and thin to the point of severity wearing a cotton uniform, like that of a waitress, walked across the room in rhythm with the tune. Strutted would be a better word — its hard not to strut to that catchy tune. It's a good song for walking.
She took the hand of a tall young man who had been on the bus. He wore khaki pants and a plaid shirt. His face was redish brown and his hands large and work-worn. He too was very thin, like so many others I had seen in the streets and the porches of working-class neighborhoods, on the streetcars, in the employment offices and outside the factories and mills in Birmingham.
There are many adjectives one could use to describe the appearance of the white workers of this area — tanned, polite, quiet, rangy, guarded, poor, raw boned hard, but the [unclear] word that would apply to more of them than any other is the word thin, very thin.
I left the depot and walked down the street toward a square with a elaborate fountain in it. It was a sunny late afternoon, and people were just getting off work. A few people nodded to me or said hello — this is a polite city — and a lot of people smiled. These were negroes. I noticed after a while that they were smiling not at me, but at other negroes walking in my direction. When there were no negroes alongside, the faces of those approaching bore a suppressed smile. I suppose that some might interpret it as smirk, but it seemed to me to be more a dreamy, inside smile, like that of a young person in love, But it was on all the dark faces, young, and old, wrinkled faces and smooth faces, well groomed faces, and work worn faces.
Occasionally-particularly from women's faces it burst right through, in spite of the approaching white face, and was quickly, but with difficulty controlled by tired facial muscles.
This was the first visible sign of the Montgomery "protest" movement.
When I met a negro reporter and asked him what he thought about the Montgomery situation, the first thing he said was "There sure are a lot of smiles," and his own face bore one. Throughout our conversation on the street (there is no other public place where we could meet) he tried to maintain an expression in keeping with our serious discussion, but he only succeeded in looking like he'd just been kissed.
As I walked on down the street a well dressed negro man crossed the sidewalk from inside a shoe store. he carried a tall stack of empty shoe boxes to be placed with others on the curb alongside the waste paper cans which stood there. He whistled "The Poor People of Paris", and he strutted as one must when walking at the same time.
From behind me I heard the same song, whistled from several pairs of lips. I slowed, and was passed by three negro woman, two young, and one possibly their mother. The man stopped whistling as he bent to place the boxes on the curb. "Hello Mrs. Smith," He said, his movements and words still in rhythm with the song.
"Why howdy Mr. Jones." the woman replied, also in rhythm. "How's business,"
"Fine, just fine." said Mr. Jones as he crossed back his eyes caught mine, and he smiled a broad smile. The women walked on by, or rather strutted, as one must when walking to that tune.
The other whites, and there were many near, seemed not to notice the action but they must have, they were meant to. The words had been loud enough for all to hear. Even if they missed that scene, they couldn't miss the others, more or less subtle, which are constantly enacted all over town during the busy street time hours. And that is the second visible sign of the Montgomery "protest" movement.
The atmosphere is in sharp contrast to the streets of Birmingham where negro eyes avoid white ones, and where the tired plod, the shuffle, or the cautious step hides joyous free movement long denied or dignity long suppressed.
"Dignity," said a negro student I talked to the next day, "We've acquired dignity! Why do you know," he continued "as inadequate as this little Jim Crow college (Alabama State College in Montgomery) is for the needs of negroes in Alabama, many of our finest graduates move out of the state, and our people never get the benefit of their education. You can't blame them. I had planned [unclear line] changed my mind. It might change others. We've acquired dignity and we are going to get justice."
But that conversation came later. I continued my stroll down the dignified streets of Montgomery Alabama. At the square with the fountain I turned right and saw what I had searched vainly for in Birmingham. At the end of the wide street which runs up the graceful slope of a hill commanding the city, and on top of that hill stands a monument to the confederacy, a building which had stood when Alabama was a land of chattel slavery. It is the capitol painted building of the state, housing the legislature. Its Greek Columns gleam whiter than any, and there are even real marble steps.
I walked up the street crossed the broad lawn, mounted the steps and stood beneath a statue at the entrance to the capital. Jefferson Dave the plaque said, and carved around the base were the names of the states which had succeed from the union in 1861.
Birmingham has no such physical remnant of slavery, or of the civil war, because that period had passed and been obscured by years of fable, and whitewashed with manufactured [unclear words] before the city of Birmingham even existed. Birmingham was born in the 1870's when the railroads came in to the large mineral deposits in the Jones Valley surrounded by the Southernmost ranges of the Appalachian System. There within a few square miles are found vast deposits of every mineral necessary for the production of steel.
The city is connected by a 17 mile railway to a navigable river to the sea, and by many railroads to the rest of the nation. It is the chief center for coal and iron south of Pennsylvania. It is almost exclusively a city of basic heavy industry, and the inhabitants of its metropolitan area who number half a million, are overwhelmingly industrial workers. Its population is one quarter negro. The CIO organized both negro and white workers here, and Birmingham has a per capita union membership greater than Chicago's. It is the center of a changing South, and the center of that change.
Montgomery on the other hand except for the state capital and Maxwell Air Force base (which provides a large part of the city's business) is little more than an agricultural county seat. Only a handful of its 125,000 people are industrial workers, and only a part of these are union members. Its population is 40% negro, many of these are domestic workers, and a tiny minority belong to unions.
Life in Montgomery is not as obviously raw or harsh as in Birmingham, Montgomery is steeped in old habits and traditions, and it resist change. Yet it is here, in "the cradle of the confederacy" (which motto appears on city trash receptacles on the streets) that a fundamental political change has already taken place. The dynamic city to the North has yet to follow.
This change is simply that the negro masses have begun to shape their own destiny. They are united in an organization which they built themselves right here, and in the process of struggle. They and they alone control it, and through it they act as one.
For the first time since the alliance of northern big business and the southern Bourbons succeeded in disenfranchising the negro under the yoke of segregation at the turn of the century, a negro community, is a political force to be reckoned with.
[In this context, the term "Bourbon" refers to the very wealthy, very white, and politically very conservative southern elite — government leaders, plantation owners, mining and manufacturing kingpins, major bank financiers, and large cotton merchants. Economically and politically, this group dominated the South before the Civil War and quickly regained their power after Reconstruction.]
This organization is the Montgomery Improvement Association. It has been described by one of its leaders as "the council of the negroes of Montgomery. We have no voice in the regular government. This is our voice." The origin and character of the Montgomery Improvement Association is the subject of the next article.
March 5, 1956. Montgomery Improvement Association Mass Meeting
Tonight I attended one of the bi-weekly meetings of the Montgomery Improvement Association. This is the organization which the negroes of Montgomery have set up to run the protest movement here.
Tonight's meeting was held in the Bethel Baptist Church on Mobile Road in a Negro residential district. It was a warm and humid evening and it had started to rain when I arrived at the church. Though it was an hour before the meeting was to begin, the hall was already over full. People crammed the aisles and overflowed off the step into the muddy paths on the edge of the street (there are no sidewalks in this section of town). The long lines of parked cars were full of people escaping the shower, and more loaded cars were arriving.
I made my way (pushing wasn't necessary, people politely squeezed up and made room) to a point just inside the doorway. The hall was not as large or well apportioned as many churches I had seen in the North, though it was very well kept. I estimated between 2 an 3 thousand people were there though the church was meant to hold many less. I had been told that the size of the meetings is always limited only by the size of the hall. That was certainly the case tonight.
There were people seated on the platform, but no one at the speakers stand. A man was standing in the middle of the hall half singing a story about his life. The audience kept time with a low rhythmic hum. "Oh lord I've shuffled too long, now I walk for righteousness. I'll walk for 50 years if I've got that many left..." The audience responded now and then with the traditional "Yeah", "Yes, yes", "I hear you", "Yes, Lord." The humming continued throughout, now soft, now louder.
The man sat down, the humming continued. In a moment a woman rose from her seat and told a story about her child who had come home one day in tears. He had been chased away by policeman from where he had been playing, and he asked her why. She had told him it was because only white children can play there, but he didn't understand. The humming rose, the audience responded. The woman continued: "I broke that child's heart." Her voice rose, "I ain' gon break no more children's heat. Didn't God make all children?" "Oh yes!" the audience responded with clapping musical cheers. "We ain' gon break no more [unclear words]
The woman sat down, others rose, now here, now there. Pouring out the story of what segregation means to negroes, to individual human beings who have been subjected to it. They talked of the restrictions on their right to vote, of saying yessir, nosir, to people who called them nigger, of the inadequate electric lights in the negro section of town compared to the ample electricity in white neighborhoods. They told of the small things like getting your shoe filled up with water coming home at night because the sidewalks stop with the white section, and they told of the big things like having to do all the hard and dirty and tedious work because of a lack of opportunities for negroes. And to every speaker there flowed the understanding and sympathy and love of the thousands present. It flowed in the form of the humming and the musical cheers and the religious words, and now and then it welled in great solidarity and strength and burst out with "God is with us!" "We are strong."
One woman told of an indignity she had suffered at the hands of a white person. "If one of 'em lays a hand on me again its gonna be just me then, [unclear line] people responded [unclear words]
A young man beckoned me outside. "Are you with the press" he said.
"Yes, but I'd just as soon stand here". He insisted, however, and with quick courtesy checked my press card and conducted me around the building to a small room behind the stage where I was introduced to the other out of town visitors. They were preachers and teachers and reporters and just plain people who had come from as far as Chicago, some bringing donations from organizations. The only whites were two reporters besides myself. There was one white face already on the stage.
After our names and mission had been recorded we were ushered out onto the platform. In front of us were faces, not a sea of faces, but thousands of individual faces. You couldn't look out there without focusing on individuals. Some were smiling, some were serious, all were attentive and participating.
On the platform beside the guests were many of the leaders of the association. There was Rev. L.R. Bennet who is Vice President of the association, a tall distinguished looking man. There was [unclear] man in a black suit whom I think was Rev. Abernathy from the [unclear words]. Off to the side I recognized Rosa Parks, a middle-aged woman whose arrest Dec. 1 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus precipitated the movement. There was E.O. Nixon, president of the local organization of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He is an old time civil rights and union fighter in Montgomery. I remembered what one leader had said of him. "We have many fine leaders, but if it hadn't been for E.D. Nixon this movement wouldn't be where it is today." He is a lean, dark, raw boned man, and very tall. he sat off to the side smiling only occasionally, and then, it seemed, only at some practical point.
A cheer rose form the hall as Rev. Martin Luther King, President of the association entered. He is a young man, only 27, and only a short time away form his Boston education. He has been in Montgomery only since 1954, and now he is the most prominent leader of a powerful and effective movement protesting segregation itself, and this in Montgomery Alabama — "The Heart of Dixie." He carried a stack of letters and notes in his hand and he walked seriously, like a man conscious that he was making history.
"How had this all come about," I asked myself. "How did a movement like this get started?"
A white journalist who lives in Montgomery had told me part of the answer. "That December 5 protest wasn't called because of Rosa Parks alone. That was just the last straw. There had been other arrests and a long history of incidents. For one thing, buses here don't have a fixed segregation line like they do in Birmingham. Everything was up to the driver, and I'm telling you, if it had been company policy to be rude, some of the bus drivers couldn't have done worse. Sometimes they'd take a negro's money and drive off before he walked around to the back door. Why one time they even arrested a 13 year old girl for not giving up her seat. They handcuffed her and took her off to jail. I'm told, and not by negroes either, that some of the drivers even carried guns in [unclear].
E.D. Nixon had filled the answer in [unclear] at a press conference I attended. "Some of us had tried to get something done about those busses long before this protest. We tried to talk to the City Officials, but they wouldn't even listen. When Mrs. parks got arrested that was the last straw. We decided to do something about it."
The Rev. Thomas R. Thrasher, a white man, wrote an article in the March 8 Reporter which supplied a few more details. "On Saturday Dec 3 (three days after the arrest and two days before the trial) a number of mimeographed and typed circulars were distributed in the negro community calling on citizens to stage a one-day protest by not riding the city busses the day of the trial." Three quarters of the negro riders stayed off the busses that Monday, but the judge convicted Mrs. Parks anyway, and fined her $14. She appealed.
That night about 5,000 negroes attended the protest meeting at the Holt Street Baptist Church. Says Rev. Thrasher "... it appears there was a general welling up of grievances in which the specific case of Rosa Parks and was all but forgotten."
"A general welling up of grievances" I remembered having wondered at that phrase when I had read the article, but now I understood it, I was seeing it myself in this hall, tonight at a different church, and three months later. I was reminded of a description by Jacks Belden of [unclear words] ... by Chinese women during [unclear line] and changed somewhat by music and religion.
But it had welled up and overflowed that night three months ago, and that was the night the Montgomery Improvement Association was born. Once again, E.D. Nixon's words came to mind. "We could have settled this thing long ago if the white leaders had just sat down and talked to us, but after that first day it was too late. We had to go on, our people just insisted. They voted to go on with the protest until we got something definite, and we organized the association right there on the spot. Rev. King was elected President."
Reverend King was on the platform now, three months later. He handed a sheet of paper to the chairman, a penciled agenda. I could see the line across the top. It said "Mass Protest Meeting." The meeting began officially with a spirited prayer and a reading from scripture. The audience responded traditionally. There were some short speeches interspaced with hymns. I don't remember the order or all the names. [unclear] down phrases: "1956 will be our finest." "Lord-take pity on those who may grow [unclear word] "we're growing so big, we need the Coleseum." Response: "Lets ask for it." "We'll keep on even if we have to go to jail, why we already been to jail." musical cheers.
Everybody stood to sing — it was and old hymn — I know it well. I had even sung it on picket lines, though the words had been slightly — and the rhythm much different. "I shall not, I shall not be moved..." there was no choir, none was necessary "I'm on my way to heaven I shall not be moved...." It was overpowering. Two thousand voices singing together and with a cause to sing for. The music rolled and swelled. I started singing myself. A few people smiled. Someone pointed. "Just like a tree that's standing by the water...." A flashbulb popped. Someone took our picture ".... we shall not be moved."
Rev. King spoke: "You know whether we want to be or not, we are caught in a great moment of history... It has reached the point where you are part of this movement or you are against it... It is bigger than Montgomery..." Cheers, responses. "We are somebody..." Cheers.
"The vast majority of the people of the world are colored..." Response. "Up until four or five years ago most of the one and one quarter billion colored peoples were exploited by empires of the west..." He listed the places. "India... China... Africa... Today many are free... "Response, "and the rest are on the road..." Response. "We are part of that great movement..." Cheers.
He spoke of the Bandung Conference. "...and another section of that movement met on a cold December evening in the Hope Street Baptist Church." Cheers. "We must oppose all exploitation... We want no classes and castes..." Response "We want to see everybody free..." Cheers.
He listed a number of famous negroes, "Is that why the white man should respect us? because we gave the world great men? No, that's not why. He should respect us because — because God made us both." Wild cheers. "Each individual is important. The poor undereducated person is an important person. We are important as individuals..." Cheers.
"God isn't just interested in freeing just negroes. God is interested in freeing all people... We must never use our brother as a means, but always treat him as an end. There are several methods to bring about social change, one is damaging, violent revolution... we won't use it." He spoke of passive resistance, of Gandhi and of Christ. "We are using the methods of the son Galilee... His peaceful methods... toppled the Roman Empire and split history into AD and BC." Response, cheers.
He finished with "we're gonna love everybody. Just gonna stay off the busses!" Laughter, cheers. A young guest minister from Chicago on the platform next to me said, "Boy that's great. I'm gonna move to Montgomery." The ministers smiled. E.D. Nixon look serious, as usual.
One speaker looked at the two other white reporters as he told about how the papers had reported the protest leaders driving around in Cadillacs. "Of course, Mr. Asbell is too fine a journalist to make a mistake like that on purpose. It's just that he doesn't know how to spell Ford." Laughter. "I make a motion to buy Mr. Asbell a dictionary." Laughter cheers. The reporters looked nervous.
One speaker said, "I wish the gentleman of the press would get this... There is one thing we in the South deeply resent, and that is that whenever we show some element of self respect ... you say somebody from the outside taught us that." His voice rose. "We don't have northerners to tell us to act like human beings. That's what we are doing now."
"Many whites are with us." said a speaker, and the people cheered. A minister from Birmingham said, "when you get things straightened out down here you can come on up and help us do it there. We'll come we'll be there." Cheers. He said the Birmingham people were thinking of making a mass pilgrimage to Montgomery. "We figure maybe we'll ride down to the outskirts of town some fine day and all get together and walk children walk!"
There were the transportation committee made its report. This is one of the two committees in the association. The other is the financial committee (Mrs. Ida Mae Caldwell who is financial secretary of Amalgamated Clothing Workers local 490 here is on the financial committee). These committees carry on the real work of the association. The carpool which transports the entire negro population (there are about 50,000 negroes in Mont) to and from work everyday is a complicated and expensive apparatus. It requires about $2,100 per week to run. Many of the roughly 90 (no one seems to know the exact number because of a confusion of names.) persons indicted as "leaders of a conspiracy to boycott," were not in the leadership of the association, but had simply loaned their cars to the pool.
An efficient looking woman in a black business suit took the stand to ask for the offering (donations) She is in the insurance business. She said she had received letters from children up north who were worried about her safety. "Come on up here mother, we've only got one mother you know." The audience responded "I get those too, yes me too." She said, "I sat right down and wrote them that I'm gonna stay right here and fix it so's you don't [unclear] in the back door when you come down to visit your mother. [words unclear] to the effect of staying in Montgomery to fight segregation received the loudest response of any, she said, "We'll never be satisfied with segregation again." And that was the theme of the entire meeting.
I remembered the statement of a young negro student when I had asked him what would happen if the leaders of the association were to agree to end the protest. "Oh that would never happen we have said. They bring proposals right before the meeting, and the people there would never go for that."
And E.D. Nixon had told the reporter: "I wouldn't want to be the one to make the proposal," he said. "We tried that once around Feb. 1 when we filed the suit to challenge the segregation law. We brought in a proposal to go back on the buses and fight it out in the courts. But it was too late for that. One woman jumped up and said. 'I'm gonna keep walkin until I can sit in them seats I been standin alongside of for all these years,' everybody joined in with her and that was the end of that."
"If we got the first come first serve rule, I think we could get 'em back on the buses right away, but I don't know just where we'd go from there all those threats and bombs and arrests made people mad... its too late for going back. We've been children too long, now we're [unclear words] last." someone said. The crowd cheered.
The collection speaker made an appeal for NAACP memberships. "Anyone who isn't a member come down Sunday and join... You'll need the NAACP the rest of your life... They tell us the NAACP has communists in it... that's just to scare you off... the NAACP doesn't have anything to do with communists." (This was the only time in the entire meeting that either the NAACP or Communists were mentioned.) Then the collection began. The people filed through the aisle past a table in front of the stage. There was no confusion in the overcrowded hall. Everyone moved quickly, row by row, in perfect order.
I rose and filed out with the line. Mine was now the only white face in the room. Near the door a large young man stood his dark face alive. He held out a big hand. I shook it hard, and passed on out the door and started walking back to town.
I was thirsty and wanted a cigarette, but this was a negro neighborhood, and I didn't know if I could go into one of the small restaurants along the way or not. I didn't take a chance. A prowl car slowed and two white cops eyed me suspiciously. I stepped in a puddle and got my shoe wet [unclear words] stubbed my toe on a rock because there was no street [unclear words] so many who live over the years must have done walking in the other direction. I reached the sidewalks but it was late. I was downtown before I found a open cafe next to an over- the-road bus depot.
Inside I drank 2 soda pops and listened to briefly to a conversation between two men. "Lord knows I've always liked niggers. I'll be glad when thing settle down again. We always got along so well. This is a polite town. I don't know what they're kicking up such a fuss about."
Outside I stood smoking for a moment. The rain had stopped and the night was clean and beautiful. A tall young negro in denim pants and a Khaki shirt approached me. "Please sir, will you buy a pack of cigarettes in there? They got none at the depot." I took his money and bought the pack. He bowed slightly as he took it said, "Thank you sir" and walked quickly toward the depot.
I turned and walked my last walk down the streets of the polite city of Montgomery Alabama, and I'm telling you — I cried.
Copyright © Fred Halstead, 1956
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