1954

1956

1955

Baltimore Sit-In Victory (Jan)
Rev. George Wesley Lee Murdered (May)
The "Brown II," "All Deliberate Speed" Decision (May)
Lamar Smith Murdered (Aug)
Emmett Till Lynched (Aug)
John Earl Reese Murdered (Oct)
Montgomery Bus Boycott (Dec 1955-Dec 1956)

 

Baltimore Sit-In Victory (Jan)

The four-story, Read's drug store at Howard and Lexington Street in the heart of Baltimore's downtown shopping district is the flagship of the Read's chain throughout the region. Black customers are encouraged to buy items and spend their money — but not at the lunch-counter, that's for "Whites Only." The same is true for other Read's branches in the metro area including the one in the Northwood Shopping Center adjacent to Morgan State College (today, Morgan State University) whose student body is almost entirely Black.

Formed in late 1952 and early 1953, the Baltimore chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) convinces Kresage (now Kmart) and other chain stores to desegregate their lunch counters in the Baltimore area. But not the Grant's or Read's chains. After protests at Grant's annual stock-holder meeting and it's flagship stores in Baltimore and Harlem, Grant's also ends segregation at many of its Border-South outlets in May of 1954. That leaves Read's. In January of 1955, CORE and Morgan State students commence a direct-action campaign at the downtown and Northwood stores. Ben Everinghim, leader of Baltimore CORE, Dean McQuay Kiah of Morgan State, Dr. Helena Hicks, and a group of student activists sit-in at the Howard & Lexington lunch counter while other Morgan students stage of demonstrations at the Read's store at the Northwood Shopping Center.

Their efforts win a quick victory. An article in the Baltimore Afro American titled "A True Story," describes a conversation between Dean George Grant of Morgan State and a Read's manager:

Read's: Please call your students off. They're staging a showdown here in our Northwood store. We're losing business.

Grant: We teach our students here they must practice democracy and help others to understand it. I don't think you want us to tell them what they're doing is wrong.

Read's: Yes, but we're losing business with them sitting at our counters.

Grant: Well, there are several things you can do.

Read's: What's that?

Grant: Why not put a sign up in your store saying dogs, cats and colored people are not allowed?

Read's: Well, we couldn't do that.

Grant: Well, why not put an ad in the Afro saying that Read's wants colored people to shop there but they can't eat there; and you know you have another alternative, you can say to all your customers everyone can be served at our lunch counters.

Read's: Well, we are in sympathy with this thing  —  we'll see what can be done.

Two hours later a Read's official calls back to say that their Baltimore area stores will desegregate. The headline of the January 22, 1955, Afro proclaims: Now Serve All and the article quotes a statement by Read's President Arthur Nattans Sr.:

We will serve all customers throughout our entire stores, including the fountains, and this becomes effective immediately.

See Baltimore Sit-ins & Protests for subsequent events.

For more information:
Web: Baltimore & Maryland

NAACP Leader Rev. George Wesley Lee Murdered in Belzoni MS. (May)

Rev. George Wesley Lee is an NAACP leader and one of the first Black men registered to vote in Humphreys County in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. He uses his pulpit and his printing press to urge others to vote. To the great consternation of the White Citizens Council and the KKK, he manages to get almost 100 Blacks registered. White officials offer Lee "protection" on the condition he remove his name from the list of registered voters and end his voter registration efforts. He refuses.

On May 7, 1955, Lee attempts to vote in the Democratic primary. Though he is a legally registered voter, he is prevented from casting his ballot because the Mississippi Democratic Party is "white-only." Only whites are allowed to vote in party primaries or participate in party meetings or activities. On his way home he is shot to death. No one is ever arrested for this murder.

Witnesses describe how whites in another vehicle had fired a shotgun into Lee's car. The local sheriff declares his murder to be "death by unknown cause" and he claims that the lead shotgun pellets in Lee's face were "dental fillings." He has no explanation for the shot-out tires that brought Lee's car to a halt. The Governor refuses to allow the state to investigate any further. No one is ever arrested or charged in his murder.

 

The "Brown II," ("All Deliberate Speed") Decision (May)

See "Massive Resistance" to Integration for preceding events.

In a decision known as "Brown II," the Supreme Court rules that school integration should procede with "all deliberate speed." In real life, this means that Southern states and school districts can resist, delay, and avoid significant integration for years — and in some cases for a decade or more. It permits a wide range of outright evasions such as closing down school systems and using state money to finance segregated "private" schools, stalling tactics such as the "Nashville Plan," and subterfuges such as "token" integration where a few Black children are admitted to "white" schools but the vast majority are forced to remain in underfunded, unequal Black schools.

The "Massive Resistance" to school integration permitted by "Brown II" continues until 1964 when:

With Senator Byrd's "Massive Resistance" strategy no longer possible, segregationists in the South then adopt what might be called a "Massive Evasion" strategy to maintain separate and unequal school systems for white and Black.

See Clinton, Tennessee — First White School Desegregated and Prince Edward County, Virginia, Closes It's Public Schools for continuation.

For more information on school desegregation:
Books: Schools and School Desegregation
Web: School Desegregation

 

Lamar Smith Murdered (Aug)

On August 13, Lamar Smith, a voting rights activist in Brookhaven, MS, is shot dead on the Lincoln County courthouse lawn by a white man in broad daylight while dozens of people watch. The killer is never indicted because no one will admit they saw a white man shoot a Black man.

 

Emmett Till Lynched (Aug)

Emmett Louis Till is a 14-year-old boy from Chicago. Over summer vacation, he visits relatives in Money Mississippi (just north of Greenwood). He somehow offends the racial sensabilities of local whites — some claim he "whistled at" or "sassed" or "flirted" with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who runs a local store catering to Blacks, others say that he showed around a photograph of himself and a white girl who he claimed as his girlfriend back in Chicago.

On the night of August 28, a few days later, Carolyn Bryant's husband Roy and his half-brother J.W. Milam drag Till from his bed, savagely beat him, shoot him in the head, tie his corpse to a piece of heavy machinery with barbed wire, and dump his body in the nearby Tallahatchie River.

Everyone knows who the killers are — they brag about it to friends and reporters. After national news media runs the story, they are arrested on charges of kidnapping and murder. An all-white jury finds the men innocent.

Lynching Black men (and boys) for "crimes" against segregation, white supremecy, and the "purity of white womanhood," is a traditional part of the "southern way of life." What makes the Emmett Till case different are the angry public protests by Mississippi Blacks and the courage of Mamie Till, Emmett's mother, who refuses to remain silent out of fear. She publicizes the lynching, insists on an open coffin at Emmett's funeral, and allows Jet magazine and the Chicago Defender to publish photos of his mutilated corpse so that the world can see the horrific brutality that was inflicted on her 14-year old son.

In September, Bryant and Milam are tried for murder by an all-white, all-male jury. Moses Wright, with whom Emmett had been staying, courageously testifies on the stand, identifying the two guilty men. As does Wille Reed, another poor Black sharecropper. The jury takes barely an hour to acquit the two killers. In November, a grand jury in Greenwood refuses to indict them for kidnapping. In an article written for Look magazine by William Bradford Huie, Milam later brags about his crime.

With their lives in danger for daring to accuse white men of murdering a Black child, Wright and Reed have to be smuggled out of Mississippi to Chicago. Medgar Evers and other NAACP leaders publicize and organize around the case, raising awareness not only in the U.S. but internationally. Blacks boycott stores owned by the Milam and Bryant families, driving them out of business.

In later years, many of the young activists who lead the Movement in the 1960s say that it was reading about the lynching of Emmett Till — a boy their own age — that began the process of motivating their courage and committment. Joyce Ladner of SNCC later refers to herself and other young Mississippians as the "Till generation," "I can name you ten SNCC workers who saw that picture [of Till's body] in Jet magazine, who remember it as the key thing about their youth that was emblazoned in their minds."[1]

For more information:
Web: Emmett Till Murder

 

John Earl Reese Murdered

In the summer of 1955, Kilgore Junior College (KJC) serving Gregg and Rusk Counties, Texas, is under Federal court order to desegregate. To intimidate Blacks and keep them from enrolling, white terrorists shoot at Black grade schools and threaten retaliation against anyone who dares integrate KJC.

On October 23rd, John Earl Reese, 16, is dancing with his sister and cousins in a Gregg County cafe. As they drive past at high speed, two white men open fire on the cafe, killing Reese and wounding Joyce and Johnnie Nelson.

Joe Simpson and Perry Ross are arrested for the crime. Their lawyer explains to the court that they wanted to "make a raid" out of frustration with "uppity blacks," and that they "wanted to scare somebody and keep the niggers and the whites from going to school together." District Attorney Ralph Prince describes the crime as "A case of two irresponsible boys attempting to have some fun by scaring niggers." Ross, the shooter, is given a suspended sentence (no jail time). Simpson is never indicted at all.

 

Montgomery Bus Boycott (Dec 5, 1955 — Dec 21, 1956)
Photos

See also Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956 for additional articles and original documents.

Contents:

The Situation
Straws in the Wind
Thunderclap
Day of Days
The Trial of Rosa Parks
Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church   
Long Walk to Freedom
"Never!"
The City Strikes Back
Challenging Segregation in Federal Court
The Violence of Desperate Men
Nonviolence
Walk Together Children, Don't You Get Weary
Hold On, Hold On
Important Points

"History is not an accident, it is a choice." — Bayard Rustin.

The Situation

In the 1950s, it's a point of pride among the good white folk of Montgomery Alabama that their city was once the "Cradle of the Confederacy" — the original capitol of a slave-holder society dedicated to the proposition that all white men had a God-given right to own and hold all Black folk as property. Montgomery whites also take quiet comfort in the tranquility of their city's race-relations — white and Black both happy and content in their appropriate place. Blacks, however, see things quite differently:

In 1952 when I was nine years old, one Sunday my grandmother brought me into Liggett's Drug Store at Court Square right behind the fountain. The soda jerk called me a pickaninny. I knew that was a bad word and deliberately spilled water on the counter where I was standing. It was my first conscious protest. They knew at nine that I was going to be a militant, and by 1956 I was automatically dispatched to the Montgomery Improvement Association during the bus boycott. "Go get me, go fetch me," whatever the elders wanted. I wrote my eighth-grade paper on the Montgomery bus boycott — wish I still had that piece. Dr. Gwen Patton. [2]

Almost two-thirds of Black women in Montgomery work as domestic servants for white families, and almost half of all Black men are low-paid casual laborers or domestic workers. In 1950, the median annual income for whites is $1,730 (equal to $16,500 in 2012), for Blacks it is just $970 ($9,200). Of 30,000 Black men and women of voting age in 1954, only 2,000 (7%) have been allowed to become registered voters.

Economically, Montgomery at this time is dominated by Maxwell and Gunter Air Force bases. One out of every 14 civilians works for the military, and one out of every seven families residing in the city is associated in some way with the Air Force. In compliance with President Truman's 1948 desegregation order, the two bases are completely integrated, but off-base all aspects of life for the city's 64,000 white and 43,000 Black residents are rigidly segregated.

Montgomery is segregated by race, and the Black community is stratified by class. The great majority are at the bottom, low-paid laborers and domestics. In the middle are Air Force employees, small entrepreneurs, and the few blue-collar and service workers with steady paychecks above the poverty line (such as a Pullman Car porter, for example). On top is a thin, but highly influential strata of ministers, college professors, and business leaders.

Churches are the foundation of Black society and among those that play key roles in civic life are Rev. Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist — a brick-a-day institution founded in 1867, the first formally-recognized Black church in the city — Pastor A.W. Wilson's Holt Street Baptist, Trinity Lutheran with a Black congregation and an outspoken white minister named Robert Graetz, the Mount Zion AME Church of L. Roy Bennet and Solomon Seay Sr, Rev. Edgar French's Hilliard Chapel AME Zion Church, and Dexter Avenue Baptist, the Black community's elite church with a new — and largely unknown — minister by the name of Martin Luther King Jr.

Not all of Montgomery's Black leaders are preachers. Most prominent is E.D. Nixon, a dedicated fighter for justice, Pullman Car porter, union leader, NAACP officer, and Voters League organizer. Another is Alabama State College (ASC) football coach Rufus Lewis, head of the Citizens Committee, and a man with significant influence among ASC students. ASC professors Mary Fair Burks and Jo Ann Robinson lead the Womens Political Council, an organization of middle-class and professional woman struggling against racial injustice.

And racial injustice is everywhere in Montgomery. Particularly on the buses. Few Blacks can afford a car, so for most the public transportation is essential for getting to work, school, and shopping. According to Montgomery City Lines, 75% of their riders are Black, but many believe that the actual number is higher. Montgomery law requires racial segregation on all buses, but the manner of that segregation is (in theory) determined by the company and its drivers — and the system they impose is extreme even by southern norms. Under their rules, the front is reserved for whites, and Blacks are sent to the back of the bus as is commonly the case throughout the South. But in Montgomery, Black passengers have to board and pay their fare at the front and then, not permitted to walk through the white section, they must get off and walk to the rear door to reenter. Some drivers close the doors and depart before Blacks who have paid their dimes can get back on board. As the bus fills up, whites from the front, Blacks from the rear, Blacks are not allowed to sit if it means that a white person has to stand. If the white section is full, the entire front-most row of Blacks must surrender their seats to create a new "white row." This often means that Blacks have to stand in the rear while one white rider occupies a row with three empty seats. Whites assume that this is the natural order of life. Blacks do not share that view, which is why the police stand ready to arrest "troublemakers."

[BACKGROUND: The Supreme Court's 1946 ruling in Morgan v Virginia blocked enforcement of local segregation ordinances in regards to inter-state commerce facilities such as train stations and bus depots. But municiple bus systems that did not cross state lines were not covered by that ruling. And regardless of what the Justices might say in Washington, any Black person who tried to implement the Morgan ruling in the Deep South faced mob violence and arrest as the Freedom Riders discovered in 1961.]

Straws in the Wind

In the aftermath of the previous year's 1954 Brown decision, Black hopes for an immediate end to segregation soar, only to be dashed by adamant white resistance. As Black leaders view it, the Supreme Court has ruled that school segregation is not only morally wrong but unconstitutional, so therefore all other forms of segregation must be equally illegal and come to an end — particularly Montgomery's hated and humiliating system of bus segregation. But how?

For local NAACP leaders the answer is clear — challenge the constitutionality of the bus law and appeal it to the Supreme Court. Montgomery whites, however, are already enraged over Brown. They comfort themselves with the illusion that Brown was an atrocity of Yankee meddling, and that "their" colored population, happy and content as they are, have no sympathy or support for "race-mixing" of any sort. If Montgomery Blacks shatter that illusion by attempting to over-turn the bus segregation laws, the full fury of white anger will come smashing down. And to challenge the law in Federal court, there has to be a defendant who has been arrested for refusing to obey it — a defendant able to withstand economic, political, social, and quite possibly violent retaliation from whites. And also a defendant that all strata of Montgomery's Black community will support and rally around.

Other Black leaders ponder a less confrontational approach — convince the Montgomery City Lines or city government to mandate a less oppressive and humiliating manner of segregation as was done by the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott just two and a half years earlier. Baton Rouge is the capitol of Louisiana as Montgomery is the capitol of Alabama, and if a bus boycott can force an improvement there, why not here? The Brown case took several years to reach the Supreme Court, but a change in the rules of segregation could be accomplished immediately. And by not challenging segregation itself, the risks of white anger and retaliation might be reduced.

In March of 1954, the Womens' Political Council (WPC) meets with Mayor Gayle. They request that the bus rules be changed to eliminate the 'pay-in-front-enter-at-rear' system and that Blacks not be required to stand while seats are empty. No response is forthcoming. In the initially heady days immediately after Brown, WPC President Jo Ann Robinson writes him a letter warning that: "... there has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of busses."

On March 2nd, 1955, all seats are full when whites board a Dexter Avenue bus at the Court Street stop. The driver orders a row of four Black women to stand so that whites can take their seats. Claudette Colvin, 15 years old and a student at Booker T. Washington high school, refuses to give up her seat. The cops are quickly summoned. Colvin defies them. She's attended meetings led by NAACP Youth Council President Rosa Parks, and knows that by the strict letter of the bus law she's entitled to keep her seat. She's arrested, dragged off the bus and handcuffed.

Within the Black community there's outrage at such treatment of a young girl. But Black leaders are unsure if hers is the case to challenge the law — many of the Black witnesses are fearful and could be pressured to change their testimony. Colvin is pregnant and unwed, which means that the more socially conservative and "respectable" elements of the Black community are unlikely to identify with her cause. And she herself is vulnerable to Alabama's ruthless system of so-called juvenile justice that allows state incarceration of "wayward girls" on flimsy "morals" charges. A vindictive judge could conceivably jail her without hope of appeal until she turned 19.

Rosa Parks is secretary of the Montgomery NAACP and a registered voter. In the words of Dr. King: "Her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted. All of these traits together made her one of the most respected people in the Negro community." In July of 1955, she attends a two-week workshop at the inter-racial Highlander Folk School in Tennessee (today the Highlander Center). The program on "Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision" includes discussions of nonviolent tactics and strategies for resisting racism and overcoming discrimination. She later describes her experience: "That was the first time in my life I had lived in an atmosphere of equality with members of the other race. ... it could be done without the signs that said "White" and "Colored" — without any artificial barriers of racial segregation."

In October, a white woman boards the Highland Avenue bus. There are no seats in the "white" section so she asks the driver to remove Mary Louise Smith. Smith refuses to give up her seat. She is arrested, convicted of violating the segregation ordinance, and fined nine dollars. Again Black leaders consider using her case to challenge the law, but she comes from an impoverished rural family and the community considers her father to be an alcoholic (even though her father, a widower, built a brick home for his family and sent his children to St. Jude, a Black Catholic private school, which was also the last campsite of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March). E.D. Nixon knows it might be hard to rally the full range of community support behind her, and they are vulnerable to white pressure, so her case is not appealed.

Thunderclap

Late in the afternoon of Thursday, December 1st, 1955, Rosa Parks leaves work at the Montgomery Fair department store and boards a Cleveland Avenue bus for home. She's tired after a long day, but she knows she has to begin preparing for an NAACP youth meeting she's to lead over the weekend. The bus fills up. A white man boards — but with no seats available he has to stand in the aisle. The bus driver orders the four front-most Blacks to surrender their seats so he can sit. Mrs. Parks recalls:

At his first request, didn't any of us move. Then he spoke again and said, "You'd better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." ... When the [other] three people ... stood up and moved into the aisle, I remained where I was. When the driver saw that I was still sitting there, he asked if I was going to stand up. I told him, no, I wasn't. He said, "Well, if you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested." I told him to go on and have me arrested. He got off the bus and came back shortly. A few minutes later, two policemen got on the bus, and they approached me and asked if the driver had asked me to stand up, and I said yes, and they wanted to know why I didn't. I told them I didn't think I should have to stand up. After I had paid my fare and occupied a seat, I didn't think I should have to give it up. They placed me under arrest then and had me to get in the police car, and I was taken to jail... — Rosa Parks. [3]

For any Black person, particularly a Black woman, jail in the South holds both terror and shame, terror because white authorities know they can mete out abuse and degradation to Black prisoners without the slightest concern of consequences, and shame because in this era of the mid-1950s arrest for defying segregation has not yet evolved into a badge of honor.

From jail, Mrs. Parks calls her mother who immediately contacts E.D. Nixon. The cops refuse to give him any information. Nixon calls white attorney Clifford Durr who learns that Mrs. Parks has been charged with violating the bus segregation law. Durr and his wife Virginia are among the few Alabama whites who dare cross the color line by working for racial justice and forming friendships with Blacks. For those crimes against the "southern way of life" they are ostracized from Montgomery white society.

See White Support of the Montgomery Boycott for more information on the Durrs.

E.D. Nixon and the two Durrs quickly head to the city jail, and by evening they manage to have Mrs. Parks released on bail. Nixon tells her, "Mrs. Parks, this is the case we've been looking for. We can break this situation on the bus with your case." As an NAACP activist herself, she well knows the pressures and dangers challenging a segregation law up to the Supreme Court entails. She tells him she first has to discuss it with her mother and husband as they too will be in the cross-hairs of white retaliation. Her husband Raymond (a barber with white clients) pleads with her to just pay her fine and let it go, "The white folks will kill you, Rosa," he warns her. Rosa Parks did not seek this challenge, but now that the duty has fallen to her, she knows she cannot shirk it. "If you think it will mean something to Montgomery and do some good," she quietly tells Nixon and the Durrs, "I'll be happy to go along with it."

Fred Gray, a young Black attorney just a year out of law school, agrees to represent Mrs. Parks. Nixon and Gray immediately begin mobilizing support for Mrs. Parks and the struggle they know lies ahead. Word soon reaches Jo Ann Robinson of the Womens Political Council and in the dark of a Thursday night the council women gather on the ASC campus. By midnight they are coordinating with E.D. Nixon over the phone and drafting a leaflet calling on the community to boycott the buses on Monday, the day of Rosa's trial. All through the night they crank the school mimeo, knowing they must finish and be gone by dawn. If they're caught, they'll certainly be fired and risk the college losing its state funding.

See Organizing Before the Boycott for more information.

In the morning hours of Friday, E.D. Nixon sets in motion a meeting of ministers and community leaders at King's Dexter Avenue Church to build support for Mrs. Parks trial, the court challenge, and the bus boycott — though he himself won't be able to attend because he has to leave on his Pullman Car porter run to New York City and back. One of his last calls is to tip off an editor at the Montgomery Advertiser about, "The hottest story you've ever written."

On Sunday, Abernathy, King, Graetz, Wilson, Bennet, and other ministers urge their congregations to support the boycott and attend a community mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist after work on Monday evening. And the front-page story in the Sunday Advertiser inadvertently spreads the word to those who have not yet seen any of the leaflets or heard about the boycott from their church. In typical heavy-handed fashion, the Montgomery police proclaim that police will follow the buses to prevent Black "goon squads" from enforcing the boycott against those who wish to ride, and on Monday shotgun-toting cops in riot helmets prowl the lines. Of course, it never occurs to them that timid souls wavering over whether to support the boycott might be more frightened by heavily armed white cops than imaginary Black "goon squads."

Day of Days

Monday morning, December 5, 1955, dawns cold and dank.

At 5:30 Monday, December 5, dawn was breaking over Montgomery. Early morning workers were congregating at corners. There, according to plan, Negroes were to be picked up not by the Montgomery City Lines, but by Negro taxis driving at reduced rates of ten cents per person, or by some two hundred private cars which had been offered free to bus riders for Monday only. The suspense was almost unbearable, for no one was positively sure that the taxi drivers would keep their promises, that the private car owners would give absolute strangers a ride, that Negro bus riders would stay off the bus. And then there was the cold and the threat of rain. — Jo Ann Robinson. [6]

Dr. King remembers:

The first bus was to pass around six o'clock. And so we waited through an interminable half hour. I was in the kitchen drinking my coffee when I heard Coretta cry, "Martin, Martin, come quickly!" I put down my cup and ran toward the living room. As I approached the front window Coretta pointed joyfully to a slowly moving bus: "Darling, it's empty!" I could hardly believe what I saw. I knew that the South Jackson line, which ran past our house, carried more Negro passengers than any other line in Montgomery, and that this first bus was usually filled with domestic workers going to their jobs. Would all of the other buses follow the pattern that had been set by the first? Eagerly we waited for the next bus. In fifteen minutes it rolled down the street, and, like the first, it was empty. A third bus appeared, and it too was empty of all but two white passengers.

All day long it continued. At the afternoon peak the buses were still as empty of Negro passengers as they had been in the morning. Students of Alabama State College, who usually kept the South Jackson bus crowded, were cheerfully walking or thumbing rides. Job holders had either found other means of transportation or made their way on foot. While some rode in cabs or private cars, others used less conventional means. Men were seen riding mules to work, and more than one horse-drawn buggy drove the streets of Montgomery that day.

During the rush hours the sidewalks were crowded with laborers and domestic workers, many of them well past middle age, trudging patiently to their jobs and home again, sometimes as much as twelve miles. They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity. — Martin Luther King. [4]

The Trial of Rosa Parks

On that same Monday morning, while uncounted thousands of Black citizens boycott the Montgomery buses, Rosa Parks is quickly tried, convicted, and fined $10 plus $4 court-costs for violating the bus segregation ordinance. E.D. Nixon (who has returned from his porter run) recalls:

I'd been in court off and on for twenty years, hearing different peoples, and very seldom, if ever, there was another black man unless he was being tried. But that particular morning, the morning of December the fifth, 1955, the black man was reborn again. I couldn't believe it when they found her guilty and I had to go through the vestibule down the hall to the clerk's office to sign her appeal bond. ... People came in that other door, and that door was about ten feet wide, and they was just that crowded in there, people wanting to know what happened. I said, 'Well, they found her guilty. Now, I'm gon' have to make another bond for her. As soon as we can get her bond signed, we'll bring her right out.' They said, 'If you don't hurry and come out, we're coming in there and getch-ya.' I couldn't believe it. When we got outside, police were standing outside with sawed-off shotguns, and the people all up and down the streets was from sidewalk to sidewalk out there. I looked around there, and I bet you there was over a thousand black people — black men — on the streets out there. — E.D. Nixon. [3]

The white power-structure doesn't realize it, but they've just made a huge tactical blunder. By arresting Mrs. Parks (and Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith) for violating the segregation ordinance instead some generic law like Failure to Obey a Police Officer or Disorderly Conduct they open the door to appealing the constitutionality of Montgomery's segregated bus system. In years to come, during lunch-counter sit-ins and freedom rides they rarely make that error again.

Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church

That afternoon, E.D. Nixon, Rosa Parks, Rufus Lewis, Jo Ann Robinson, preachers and other community leaders meet to decide how to proceed and what to present at the mass meeting that evening. They agree on a modest list of demands, and to push for those demands they form a new coalition organization representing all the rival factions. They name it the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).

[Montgomery Improvement Association Constitution]

There is great pride in the success of the boycott, but fear as well. Some of the ministers want the group to operate clandestinely, keeping the names of the MIA leaders secret, with plans circulated anonymously so that whites have no target for their rage. E.D. Nixon retorts:

What the hell you people talkin' 'bout? How you gonna have a mass meeting, gonna boycott a city bus line without the white folks knowing it? You guys have went around here and lived off these poor washwomen all your lives and ain't never done nothing for 'em. And now you got a chance to do something for 'em, you talkin' about you don't want the white folks to know it. Unless'n this program is accepted and brought into the church like a decent, respectable organization, ... I'll take the microphone and tell 'em the reason we don't have a program is 'cause you all are too scared to stand on your feet and be counted. You oughta make up your mind right now that you gon' either admit you are a grown man or concede to the fact that you are a bunch of scared boys! — E.D. Nixon. [3]

Arriving late at the meeting, Dr. King hears Nixon's challenge and responds: "Brother Nixon, I'm not a coward. I don't want anybody to call me a coward." He strongly agrees with Nixon that leaders must have the courage to stand forth in public. Rufus Lewis then nominates Dr. King — just 26 years old and only in Montgomery for a year — as President of the MIA and the person to give the major address at the mass meeting in a couple of hours. No one else is nominated or volunteers.

In later years some will say that King was chosen for of his self-evident talent, others will claim it was because he was not aligned with the Nixon, Lewis, or other factions and therefore a compromise candidate that all could agree on. Nixon himself later says it was because "He had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hand on him," (coopt or intimidate him). And those more cynical than others opine that the senior preachers chose not to contest his election out of reluctance of themselves becoming the target and lightening rod of white retaliation.

Other officers are then elected, Rev. Bennet as Vice-President (later to be replaced by Rev. Abernathy), E.D. Nixon as Treasurer, Rev. French as Corresponding Secretary and Rev. Fields as Recording Secretary. The hour is now getting late, the mass meeting will start soon, but there is still the question of what to do about the boycott. Some argue that given the community's astounding support it should be continued. Others argue that it should be ended that evening as a one-day protest. Some of the ministers, uneasy at mass-action and fearful of white anger, say that continuing it may provoke white recalcitrance, and that it's better to hold the possibility of some future boycott in reserve while they negotiate. No conclusion is reached, and the decision is put off until they see how many turn out for the mass meeting and how strong support continues to be.

King rushes to arrive at the mass meeting on time, but his car can make no forward progress — Holt Street Baptist is surrounded by a huge and enthusiastic crowd, by some estimates more than 5,000. Though the building is large, it can hold only a fraction of the number, so loudspeakers are hurriedly set up for those flooding the streets and adjoining yards. Inside, the church is jam packed, and along with Montgomery's Black citizens are Black leaders from Birmingham, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, and elsewhere. There are also a few white faces — some reporters and TV crews, the Commissioner of Police — and Rev. Gaetz, the only white supporter in the crush (the Durrs are outside, unable to enter). The program begins with "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," a prayer, and a reading of Scripture (Psalm 34). Pastor Wilson then calls King to the pulpit.

With little time to prepare, King speaks extemporaneously from the heart in the traditional call and response of the Black church:

... My friends, we are here this evening for serious business. (Audience: Yes) ... we are here in a specific sense, because of the bus situation in Montgomery. (Yes) We are here because we are determined to get the situation corrected. This situation is not at all new. The problem has existed over endless years. (That's right) For many years now Negroes in Montgomery and so many other areas ... have been intimidated and humiliated and oppressed because of the sheer fact that they were Negroes. (That's right!) ...

Just the other day, ... one of the finest citizens in Montgomery (Amen) — not one of the finest Negro citizens (That's right), but one of the finest citizens in Montgomery — was taken from a bus (Yes) and carried to jail and arrested (Yes) because she refused to get up to give her seat to a white person. (That's right) ....

And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. [great applause] There comes a time, my friends, when people get tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. (Keep talking!) There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life's July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. (That's right!) — There comes a time! (Teach!) [applause] ....

We are here this evening because we're tired now. (Yes) And I want to say that we are not here advocating violence. (No) We have never done that. (Repeat that, Repeat that) ... The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest. [applause] ....

There is never a time in our American democracy that we must ever think we're wrong when we protest. (Yes sir) We reserve that right. When labor all over this nation came to see that it would be trampled over by capitalistic power, there was nothing wrong with labor getting together and organizing and protesting for its rights. (That's right)

We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom — and justice — and equality. [applause] ....

Right here in Montgomery, when the history books are written in the future (Yes), somebody will have to say, "There lived a race of people (Well), a black people (Yes sir), 'fleecy locks and black complexion' (Yes), a people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. [applause] And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization. ...

And we are not wrong. We are not wrong in what we are doing. (Well) If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. (Yes sir) If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. (Yes) If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. (That's right!) If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. (Yes) If we are wrong, justice is a lie. (Yes) Love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water (Yes), and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Keep talking!) [great applause] — Martin Luther King.

[The above quotes are excerpts. For the full text and audio recording go to: MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church (King Research & Education Institute ~ Stanford Univ.)]

Looking back later, Dr. King recalled:

As I sat listening to the continued applause I realized that this speech had evoked more response than any speech or sermon I had ever delivered, and yet it was virtually unprepared. I came to see for the first time what the older preachers meant when they said, "Open your mouth and God will speak for you." — Martin Luther King. [4]

And in Parting the Waters, America in the King Years 1954-1963, author Taylor Branch later writes:

The applause continued as King made his way out of the church, with people reaching to touch him. Dexter members marveled, having never seen King let loose like that. ... King would work on his timing, but his oratory had just made him forever a public person. In the few short minutes of his first political address, a power of communion emerged from him that would speak inexorably to strangers who would both love and revile him, like all prophets. He was twenty-six, and had not quite twelve years and four months to live. — Taylor Branch. [5]

Rev. Abernathy reads a resolution to continue the bus boycott until a just settlement is reached and that no violence or intimidation be used in the boycott. The motion is carried with thunderous applause. The boycott is transformed from a one-day protest into a peoples' mass movement — an all-out struggle for justice and human dignity.

Long Walk to Freedom

After the exaltation of Monday comes the daunting reality of Tuesday. A protest has to be transformed into a movement and an organization capable of sustaining that movement, and as President of the Montgomery Improvement Association the responsibility falls most heavily on Dr. King. The MIA Executive Board has to be expanded to broaden its base and involve and represent all sectors of the Black community. Working committees have to be established to coordinate the boycott and perform the daily labor that effective social struggle requires.

Most important is the Transportation Committee chaired by Rufus Lewis. On an average workday, 17,500 Blacks normally ride the buses for 35-40,000 trips, to and fro. Some can walk, some can catch rides with friends who own cars, but many thousands still need a way to get to and from work, school, and essential errands. At first they rely on the "taxicab army," the 18 Black cab companies who volunteer to reduce their normal rate to a dime each trip — the same as the bus fare. But the cops crack down, invoking a long-ignored minimum-fare law of 45 cents. They threaten to arrest cabbies who charge less. King seeks advice and practical guidance from his good friend Rev. T.J. Jemison who led the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott. As advised by Jemison, Lewis and King then organize a carpool system and by December 13 more than 150 volunteers (ultimately rising to well over 300) are picking up and dropping off passengers at 48 dispatch stations in Black neighborhoods and 42 pickup points in white areas.

But it's not easy. Running the carpool system is a massive coordination task — mobilizing cars and drivers, meeting urgent transportation needs, matching riders, rides and destinations. Most of the actual day-to-day work is done by women who volunteer for thankless, unsung labor. Ownership of a car is a prestige status-symbol, and many who volunteer their vehicles are fussy about maintaining a pristine appearance that as a practical matter is at odds with transporting loads of strangers through rain-soaked and muddy streets. Inevitably, there are complaints and conflicts, frayed nerves and frustrated emotions that require soothing.

Day after day, week after week, month after month the boycott holds solid through the cold drenching rains of winter, the thunder squalls of spring, and the sweltering heat of summer. Men and women walk for hours to get to and from work, leaving before sunrise, reaching home long after dark. Children walk to school and students to college. Others catch rides with the volunteer drivers of the carpools, many of whom are ministers or professionals, others are housewives, the self-employed, and un-employed laborers, and a few are whites including some from the two Air Force bases. Some white employers, unable to do without their Black servants, furtively use their own cars to drive them to and from work. And some of the carpool drivers are college students. Yancy Martin recalls:

I came home from college in 1955 in December for Christmas holidays and the boycott had already begun when I got home. ... I talked with an old friend of the family, Ralph Abernathy, ... and he told me the best thing I could do was organize some people to do some driving along the bus stop route and to pick up people. 'Cause what they were doing was they were telling folk just to stand on their regular bus stop route, but as the bus would come by, just to step back. And so all the guys who were on my street whose parents had cars, we'd all get up in the morning and we'd drive that route. And what we had to do was we had to know the names of everybody in there or else the police would stop and try to charge you with operating an illegal jitney service. And so what we would do is, by knowing everybody's name, we'd just say that these are my cousins or these are friends of mine I'm giving a lift. There's no law against giving anybody a ride.

And of course, [the Black maids] was just tellin' Miss Ann, "We not ridin' the bus, and you can come pick me up, or you can find somebody else to get the job done, or you can quit yo' job and stay at home and keep your house and baby yourself." A lot of white folks were picking up their domestic workers and bringing them to the house and taking 'em home, because they had their job to get to and they needed the money. But the few who tried to fire, or did fire, or release, black folk couldn't find replacements who were going to be any better.

By early January, the boycott was going well, but it had become heavily dependent on its cadre of young drivers whose college holidays were ending. So about four or five of us said, "Well, why do we have to go back? It's important that we get a college education, but it's important that we win this thing now that we've gotten into it. ..." So some of us went home and talked to our parents, who went up in arms, but who allowed us to stay at least till the end of the semester. I thought it wasn't a symbolic gesture on the parts of the few that I know who stayed. It was just a realization of the fact that there was a need and there was nobody to fill that need. I could not guarantee that my daddy would find somebody who would be able to drive that car every day like I was driving it every day. So I went on and stayed. Fortunately we got credits for it anyway. Most of us had to write a paper on why it was important for us to stay in Montgomery during that period of time. — Yancy Martin. [3]

Gas, oil, tires, and vehicle repairs have to be provided, leaflets run off, an office set up, postage & phones paid for, and all of that costs money. MIA expenses soon grow to $5,000 a month (equal to almost $42,000 a month in 2012). The Black community digs deep, but they don't have much to start with and it's not enough. Rev. R.J. Glascoe, Director of the Baptist Center, chairs the Finance Committee, reaching out to churches, NAACP chapters, labor unions, and individuals across the country for donations. Enough comes in to keep the boycott barely alive, but never enough to meet all the demands. Even finding an office to rent is difficult, three times the threat of economic retaliation by whites forces the MIA to move before it finally finds a safe home in a building owned by the Black-led Bricklayers Union.

Twice-a-week mass meetings in various churches explain developments and keep up spirits. A mainstay of those meetings are the personal tales and testimonies from all sectors of the community. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King relates one such story of how an old domestic, an influential matriarch to many young relatives in Montgomery, is asked by her wealthy employer "Isn't this bus boycott terrible?" The old lady responds: "Yes, ma'am, it sure is. And I just told all my young'uns that this kind of thing is white folks' business and we just stay off the buses 'till they get this whole thing settled." And the oft-quoted words of an ancient woman known to all as "Mother Pollard" become the underlying motif of the entire movement: "My feets is tired, but my soul is rested."

"Never!"

Fearing white retaliation, or that the white power-structure would let the bus company go bankrupt rather than completely eliminate bus segregation, some on the MIA Executive Board are reluctant to directly challenge segregation itself. And if public bus service is ended, it is Blacks who will suffer the most. King, Nixon, Abernathy, Jo Ann Robinson, Fred Gray and others are willing — for now — to focus the boycott demands and negotiations on the manner of segregation because they believe that the appeal of Rosa Parks' conviction will eventually reach the Supreme Court and result in overturning bus segregation laws, not just in Montgomery but everywhere, in the same way that the Brown case eliminated segregated school systems nationwide (in theory, at least).

So by any standards, the MIA boycott demands are modest. Different issues are put forward at different times within the MIA, the mass meetings, and at the negotiations, but none of the points directly challenge segregation itself, rather they ask for a more humane implementation of it:

On Thursday, December 8, four days into the boycott, the MIA negotiating committee sits down with the city officials and bus company representatives at a meeting convened by the Alabama Council on Human Relations. Montgomery is governed by three co-equal elected commissioners known as the "city fathers." Because Commissioner W.A "Tacky" Gayle administers City Hall he is often referred to as Montgomery's "Mayor," though officially he has no more authority than the other two — Frank Parks and Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers.

Dr. King is the MIA spokesman. He presents, explains, and defends the boycott demands. Jack Crenshaw, the bus company attorney, takes the lead in opposing them. He dismisses the demand for courtesy as irrelevant because (he claims) city bus drivers are always courteous to all passengers regardless of race. And since the hiring of drivers is a matter of "private enterprise" that too is not a subject for negotiation. On the central matter, he contends that any change in the current system violates city and state segregation laws. The city fathers echo the bus company position.

MIA negotiators counter that they're misstating the facts. The Montgomery ordinances say nothing about Blacks having to give up their seats so that whites can sit, or requiring Blacks to board at the back of the bus after paying their fare in the front. And since they are asking for the same system that is currently in effect in Mobile Alabama it is obviously not in violation of any state regulations. In fact, both the Montgomery and Mobil bus lines are owned by the same national firm headquartered in Chicago, so they have to be aware that the MIA proposals are legal under Alabama law.

The bus company is suffering serious economic pain. By their own admission the boycott is 99% effective among Black riders and service on two heavily Black routes has already been discontinued. Yet at a second negotiating session on December 17, company representatives continue their adamant opposition to every MIA proposal, the three city commissioners support them jot and tittle, and no progress at all is made. Though the Montgomery commisioners claim it is the company who determines the precise manner of segregation within the law, the line's license is coming up for renewal by the city, and some are convinced that the company's position is actually being dictated by the city fathers — or the political powers behind them.

The recently formed Montgomery White Citizens Council (WCC) urges whites to ride the buses as a form of white solidarity, but most whites own cars and while they support segregation in principle they have no desire to forego the convenience of a private automobile. At the third negotiating session on December 19, Mayor Gayle abruptly adds WCC leader Luther Ingalls to the 8 whites and 8 Blacks who had been appointed as a working sub-committee to recommend a settlement. Dr. King objects to this unilateral addition.

White members of the committee lash out at King in a concerted attack, accusing him of intransigence and implying that if it were not for King an acceptable agreement could easily be reached. Rev. Abernathy rises to King's defense, he makes it clear that King speaks for the entire Black community. The other Black members of the committee stand firm. Unable to divide the Black negotiators, the white chairman ends the session. Though the MIA tries to reopen negotiations through other avenues, their efforts are blocked by the city fathers. No further negotiations over bus segregation are ever held between Black leaders and the bus company or city officials.

The City Strikes Back

When their effort to end the boycott at the negotiating table fails, the white power-structure moves to break it by other means. The day after negotiations break down, rumors suddenly begin to swirl through the Black community. Dr. King recalls:

False rumors were spread concerning the leaders of the movement. Negro workers were told by their white employers that their leaders were only concerned with making money out of the movement. Others were told that the Negro leaders rode big cars while they walked. During this period the rumor was spread that I had purchased a brand new Cadillac for myself and a Buick station wagon for my wife. Of course none of this was true. ... there was also an attempt to divide the leaders among themselves. Prominent white citizens went to many of the older Negro preachers and said: "If there has to be a protest, you should be the leaders. It is a shame for you, who have been in the community for so many years, to have your own people overlook you and choose these young upstarts to lead them." Certain members of the white community tried to convince several of the other protest leaders that the problem could be solved if I were out of the picture. "If one of you," they would say, "took over the leadership, things would change overnight. — Martin Luther King. [4]

Police harassment of the carpools intensifies. Black maids waiting at pickup points in white neighborhoods are dispersed for loitering and threatened with arrest for "vagrancy." Drivers are given traffic tickets for imaginary offenses — for going too fast, and then when they slow down far below the speed limit, for going too slow, for signaling a turn too late, and then for signaling a turn too soon. People who have never gotten a ticket in a lifetime of driving are not only cited, but arrested and taken to jail where they are booked as criminals. White-owned insurance companies raise rates on "bad drivers," and threaten to cancel policies altogether. Fearing that the cops might suspend their licenses or confiscate their cars, some carpool drivers drop out, making it harder for people to find a ride to work or school.

But though some drivers waver and many of the students return to college, the boycott holds strong. The bus line is on the economic ropes, and in the first week of January, 1956, they have to obtain an emergency fare increase from the city fathers so that service can be continued for those few whites who use the system. Meanwhile, at a rally of the Montgomery chapter of the White Citizens Council that draws 1,200 people, Police Commissioner Sellers publicly joins the organization and pledges his allegiance to their creed of white-supremacy.

On Saturday evening, January 21, a northern reporter tips off Dr. King that a front-page article in next morning's Montgomery Advertiser is going to claim that un-named "prominent" Black leaders have settled the boycott on company terms and that all Blacks are to resume riding the buses Monday morning. King summons the MIA to an emergency meeting. It immediately becomes clear that the story is a hoax engineered by the city fathers who reason that if some Blacks can be fooled into breaking the boycott all the others will follow like sheep. Quickly they begin working the phones, notifying every Black minister of the lie and requesting that they inform their congregations that the boycott continues. But not all Blacks attend church, so Dr. King and others go out into Saturday night to crawl the bars, dives, and country "jook joints" to reach those who may not hear a message delivered from the pulpit.

On Monday morning the buses remain empty of Black riders. The boycott holds.

Furious at the failure of their hoax and embarrassed at looking like fools, the city fathers issue a "get tough" statement accusing the MIA of being "... a group of Negro radicals who have split asunder the fine relationships between whites and Blacks, and "... what they are after is the destruction of our social fabric." They declare that the city has "... pussy-footed around with the boycott long enough," and that "... until they end [the boycott] there will be no more discussions." Mayor Gayle tells the press that he and Commissioner Parks are following Sellers into the White Citizens Council to make it unanimous — all of Montgomery's elected leaders are now members of an organization committed to maintaining white-supremacy in a city that is 40% Black.

Three days later, on January 26, Dr. King is driving a carload of passengers. When he leaves the dispatch station, cops follow him. Knowing they're behind him, he slows to way under the speed limit. When he stops to let a passenger out, they arrest him for driving 30 miles an hour in a 25mph zone. He's taken to the city jail, booked, and shoved into a filthy cell crowded with other prisoners, some of whom are other carpool drivers. The steel doors clang shut behind him — it's the first of some 30 arrests he is to endure over the next 12 years.

Abernathy rushes to the prison, desperate to get him released on bail as quickly as possible. He and Dr. King's wife Coretta are well aware that "uppity" Blacks risk brutal beatings in jailhouse backrooms, and sometimes they're "shot while trying to escape." The police refuse to accept a standard property bond. But by now word is flashing through Montgomery's Black community and supporters are converging on the jail — deacons and trustees of Dexter Avenue Church, MIA officers and supporters, and ordinary folk determined to keep King safe. Soon the building is almost surrounded by an angry, restive crowd. The police abruptly decide to release him on his own recognizance, no bail required.

The mass meeting that night is packed. People are furious at King's arrest and they want assurance he is unharmed. Unable to squeeze into the church, a growing crowd gathers outside. Fearing they may erupt in violence if provoked by the cops who prowl the perimeter, MIA leaders arrange for a second mass meeting at a nearby church and direct the throng there. But that one also quickly fills, so a third, and then a fourth is started. Before the night ends, seven different mass meetings are held to accommodate determined boycott supporters.

Challenging Segregation in Federal Court

With negotiations stalled and the boycott coming under increased attack, the MIA faces difficult choices. They can try to keep the boycott going indefinitely in the hope that the city fathers will be forced back to the table, but how long can the people endure? They can call off the boycott and wait for Rosa Parks' appeal to reach the Supreme Court, but that requires going through the entire Alabama appeals system before it even gets to into the lowest-level Federal court — a process that could take years — and what if a Federal judge simply dismisses the charges against her without overturning the law on constitutional grounds?

Down to their last resort, they ponder Fred Gray's proposal for suing in Federal court to declare the Montgomery and Alabama bus laws unconstitutional and in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. They know that the boycott and the publicity surrounding it will make it harder for the segregationists to stall and delay the proceedings, so a decision might not take three years the way that Brown decision did. But given the visceral fury that Brown provoked, they know whites will react to a Federal lawsuit as if it were the social equivalent of an atom bomb. It will forever end any chance of a negotiated settlement, and bring down on upon them intensified white wrath — both state and local.

The first hurdle is to find Black plaintiffs who have been arrested or mistreated on the buses, plaintiffs who can stand firm against white retaliation. Gray is unable to find any Black men, but five Black women step forward —  Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, Mary Louise Smith, and a fifth women who is later forced by whites to withdraw. (For reasons of legal strategy and tactics, Rosa Parks cannot be included.) The MIA leaders discuss, debate, and delay a final decision. Finally, on January 30, they take the fateful step, they order Fred Gray to file Browder v Gayle in Federal court.

The Violence of Desperate Men

By mid-January the MIA office, Dr. King, E.D. Nixon and other boycott leaders are receiving 30 to 40 threatening calls and letters a day: Get out of town, or else! Nigger, we've taken all we want from you! Before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery." In addition to being viciously racist, many are obscene, particularly those directed at Coretta King when she answers the phone which rings all day and long into the night. But they can't leave it off the hook because the next call might be related to coordinating the boycott. Rumors circulate about plots to assassinate King. Day after day the barrage of hate and threats wear down movement leaders and takes emotional toll on their families. Dr. King tells a mass meeting: "If one day you find me sprawled out dead, I do not want you to retaliate with a single act of violence. I urge you to continue protesting with the same dignity and discipline you have shown so far."

On Monday evening, January 30, a bomb is thrown at the King home on Jackson Street, exploding on the porch. Inside are Coretta King, Mrs. Mary Williams, and the King's baby daughter Yolanda. Though the house is damaged they are not injured. Dr. King rushes home from the mass meeting at First Baptist where he is speaking. An angry crowd has gathered, some brandishing guns and knives, some verbally taunting the cops. Boys are carrying broken pop bottles as if for a fight. Mayor Gayle, Police Commissioner Sellers, the fire chief, and white reporters are all present. King ignores them and goes immediately to his wife and daughter.

After making sure that his family is safe, King returns to where the officials are waiting. Gayle and Sellers mouth platitudes of regret for "this unfortunate incident." That's too much for Dexter trustee and Washington High School principal C.T. Smiley. Though his job is totally dependent on the white-power structure, he retorts: "Regrets are fine, but you created the atmosphere for this bombing with your 'get tough' policy.' You've got to face that responsibility." The white officials make no reply.

The mass of people outside King's home is growing larger as word of the bombing spreads through Montgomery's Black community. They are on the flashpoint of violence and the cops, caught by surprise, are vastly outnumbered and completely unprepared. The white reporters in King's living room need to file their stories, but they hesitate to walk through the furious crowd. Even Gayle and Sellers look pale. King walks out onto the damaged porch and the people give him immediate, respectful attention. He tells them his family is unharmed and urges them to maintain discipline and nonviolence:

If you have weapons, take them home, if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. I did not start this boycott. I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us. — Martin Luther King. [4] [5]

Two nights later another bomb is thrown at E.D. Nixon's home.

Nonviolence

As a student, Dr. King read works by Thoreau, Niebuhr, A.J. Muste, and the Mahatma Gandhi:

I had grown up abhorring not only segregation but also the oppressive and barbarous acts that grew out of it. I had passed spots where Negroes had been savagely lynched, and had watched the Ku Klux Klan on its rides at night. I had seen police brutality with my own eyes, and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts. All of these things had done something to my growing personality. I had come perilously close to resenting all white people. I had also learned that the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice. ...

Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by the Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. ... As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. — Martin Luther King. [4]

Dr. King's interest in nonviolence is intellectual, not a force that he expects to shape his future.

In 1954 ... I had merely an intellectual understanding and appreciation of the position, with no firm determination to organize it in a socially effective situation. When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman. When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance. As the days unfolded, I came to see the power of nonviolence more and more. Living through the actual experience of the protest, nonviolence became more than a method to which I gave intellectual assent; it became a commitment to a way of life. Many of the things that I had not cleared up intellectually concerning nonviolence were now solved in the sphere of practical action. — Martin Luther King. [4]

As the boycott continues, activists with experience and training in Nonviolent Resistance come to Montgomery to lend a hand. One of these is Bayard Rustin — a Quaker, a homosexual, for a brief time a Communist, an aide to A. Philip Randolph, a disciple of A.J. Muste, a pacifist who served prison time for resisting the draft, a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and an organizer of the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation (Freedom Ride) on which he was arrested and served time on a North Carolina chain-gang for violating a bus segregation law.

Now, quite contrary to what many people think, Dr. King was not a confirmed believer in nonviolence, totally, at the time that the boycott began. On my second visit there the house was still being protected by armed guards. In fact, when I went in, I went in with a chap whose name was Bill Worthy ... As Bill went to sit down in the King living room, I said, "Hey, Bill, wait! There's a gun in that chair." And he might have sat on it. But it was gradually over several weeks that Dr. King continuously deepened his commitment to nonviolence, and within six weeks, he had demanded that there be no armed guards and no effort at associating himself in any form with violence. ... I take no credit for Dr. King's development, but I think the fact that Dr. King had someone around recommending certain readings and discussing these things with him was helpful to bring up in him what was already obviously there. That's how we met.

In fact, when the Ku Klux Klan marched into Montgomery and we knew they were coming, Dr. King and I sat down and thought it over. And we said, "Ah! Tell everybody to put on their Sunday clothes, stand on their steps, and when the Ku Kluxers come, applaud 'em." Well, they came, marched three blocks, and unharassed, they left. They could not comprehend the new thing. They were no longer able to engender fear. — Bayard Rustin. [3]

Walk Together Children, and Don't You Get Weary

A week after Fred Gray files Browder v Gayle, his draft board retaliates by revoking his minister's deferment. (When the Selective Service director in Washington overrules their effort to induct Gray into the Army, many Alabama draft board members — all white, of course — resign to protest what they see as Federal "political interference.") Meanwhile, the five Black plaintiffs in the case are subject to intense pressure and threats. One is unable to hold. She is forced to deny that she agreed to challenge the bus segregation law in Federal court. Based on that flimsy pretext, Gray is then arrested on a bogus charge of "barratry" (falsely claiming to represent a client).

In mid-February, a rally at the Montgomery Coliseum is organized by the White Citizens Councils of Alabama and Mississippi. It draws some 10,000 people to applaud the three city commissioners for their adamant defense of white-supremacy in all its forms. Senator James Eastland of Mississippi lauds them: "I am sure you are not going to permit the NAACP to control your state." Three days after the rally, a Grand Jury is set up to investigate the boycott and issue indictments for violating an Alabama law against conspiracies that interfere with private businesses — a law that has never been invoked against Citizens Council boycotts of Black businesses. More than 200 Blacks are compelled by subpoena to endure an inquisition into their thoughts, beliefs, and actions — an inquisition backed by the explicit threat of jail, and implicit threats of economic retaliation and Klan violence. The city fathers and business leaders representing the white power-structure then issue an ultimatum to the Black community: end the boycott immediately on the city's terms — or face the consequences.

MIA leaders meet to confront the crisis. If the leaders and carpool drivers are jailed, can the boycott continue? Few, if any of them, have ever been in jail and the prospect is daunting. Rev. Seay rises to the point: "I say let's all go to jail! The mass meeting that night at St. John's AME Church is huge. An estimated crowd of 4,000 people vote to reject the white ultimatum — only 2 vote to accept it. Speaking the Black community's defiance, Rev. Abernathy tells reporters: "We have walked for eleven weeks in the cold and rain ... Now the weather is warming up. Therefore we will walk on ..."

On Tuesday, February 21st, a judge issues an injunction against the boycott and the Grand Jury indicts 89 MIA leaders and carpool drivers for violating the anti-boycott law.

E.D. Nixon understands that fear has to be confronted. Upon hearing of the indictment he goes to the sheriff's office in the county courthouse and declares: "Are you looking for me? Well, here I am" Word of his bold courage spreads like wildfire. As Nixon is being released on bail, others start coming forward. A growing crowd of Blacks applaud them as they march into the courthouse and proudly endure arrest. A few are caught by the police dragnet before they can turn themselves in, but most of the cops come up empty-handed — the prey they thought to find cowering in fear are already down at the sheriff's office. When E.D. Nixon, Jo Ann Robinson, Rosa Parks and Dr. King are booked they are photographed with the jail numbers 7021, 7042, 7053, and 7089. It is King's second arrest.

Now at risk of being declared in violation of the anti-boycott injunction, the twice-weekly mass meetings are canceled. In their place are substituted twice-weekly "prayer meetings" at the same churches, the same times, and with the same speakers. The "prayer meeting" that night at Abernathy's church is large and spirited. When the 89 arrestees are brought forward in honor they are given a standing ovation that rolls on and on. Bayard Rustin later recalled, "In the Black community, going to jail had been a badge of dishonor. Martin made going to jail like receiving a Ph.D." Abernathy declares the next day to be a day of prayer and pilgrimage — "Double-P Day" — when everyone is to walk, no carpools, no taxis, no private cars. It is a public show of solidarity, and it also gives MIA leaders time to plan carpool strategy in response to the injunction.

With the mass indictment and arrests, the bus boycott begins to emerge as an important national and international story. In addition to the local reporters and camera crews who have been covering boycott events, representatives of the major national media are now on the scene and with them are reporters from India, Japan, Italy, France, England, and elsewhere. And in the North, Bayard Rustin, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison organize a coalition of religious, labor, and political groups to support southern freedom struggles. They name it "In Friendship," and soon it is sending desperately needed funds to Montgomery and other embattled communities in the South.

Hold On, Hold On

As winter fades into spring the struggle continues. Each morning men, women and children wake before dawn for the long walk to work or school, each weary evening they return after sunset. Traffic tickets and insurance cancellations take their toll on the carpool drivers, boycotters face firings and evictions. Though the daily grind is wearing, they understand they are walking for their fundamental human dignity. This is not just a boycott, it's a nonviolent revolt — a revolt for political and social power, the power to resist oppression, and the power to win a better life for those who come after.

Rather than go to the expense of trying all 89 defendants and then fighting their appeals through state court, Alabama prosecutors try Dr. King as a test case on March 19, 1956. Boycott supporters from Montgomery and elsewhere in the nation, including Congressman Charles Diggs (D-MI), pack the courtroom, as do local, national, and international journalists. Hundreds are unable to squeeze inside and they stand in the halls and streets around the courthouse. Despite four days of testimony, the facts are largely irrelevant — everyone understands that the real issue is the power of white authority to suppress Black demands for change. On Thursday, March 22, both sides rest their case. Judge Eugene Carter wastes no time on re-reading the briefs or reviewing evidence. He takes not a moment for deliberation. He immediately convicts Dr. King of violating the anti-boycott law and fines him $500 (equal to $4,200 in 2012). King's defense files an appeal: State of Alabama v. Martin Luther King, Jr. (When attorneys miss a filing deadline in 1957, the appeal is dismissed on that technicality and the fine is paid, but by this time the boycott has been won and bus segregation ruled unconstitutional.)

Dr. King later recalled:

Ordinarily, a person leaving a courtroom with a conviction behind him would wear a somber face. But I left with a smile. I knew that I was a convicted criminal, but I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice. It was the crime of seeking to instill within my people a sense of dignity and self-respect. It was the crime of desiring for my people the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was above all the crime of seeking to convince my people that noncooperation with evil is just as much a moral duty as is cooperation with good. — Martin Luther King. [4]

On April 23rd, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Fleming v South Carolina Electric & Gas that bus segregation laws in Columbia SC are unconstitutional. The next day bus segregation ends in more than a dozen southern cities. Montgomery City Lines attorney Jack Crenshaw sees the hand-writing on the wall and advises the company to settle the boycott by ending segregation. But the city fathers are adamant — this is a struggle over white-supremacy, not a question of who sits where on a bus. Police Commissioner Sellers declares that bus drivers who fail to enforce segregation will be arrested. The buses remain segregated and the boycott carries on.

In May, Montgomery's spirit of nonviolent revolt spreads 180 miles south when Florida A&M students and the Black community launch the Tallahassee bus boycott. Now there are two simultaneous boycotts, and what began as a local issue in Montgomery when one woman refuses to give up her seat is stirring winds of change across multiple southern states. To the white power-structure these are storm warnings that require prompt retaliatory action.

Though local NAACP leaders and members are active in the boycott, the national NAACP leadership in New York is ambivalent. Their strategy is litigation, and they've always been deeply uneasy over any form of mass action. Eventually they agree to help fund the appeal of Browder v Gayle and the defense of those arrested, and but they are tailing rather than leading the campaign.

The white power-structure, however, seems things differently. In their view, only dark conspiracies and outside agitators can explain this revolt by Montgomery's "happy and contented Colored population." On June 1st, as part of a south-wide attack on the NAACP, Alabama Attorney General (and later Governor) John Patterson obtains an utterly unconstitutional court order outlawing the NAACP everywhere in the state on grounds that they are "...organizing, supporting, and financing, an illegal boycott by Negro residents of Montgomery." A fine of $100,000 (equal to almost $843,000 in 2012) is levied against the organization. NAACP offices are shut and records seized.

With the NAACP driven underground throughout the state, Alabama's white power-structure is confident that they have met — and mastered — a dire threat to the "southern way of life." But they forget that the law of unintended consequences has never been repealed. Across the state, former NAACP leaders and members set up new organizations, and to old ones they bring an influx of new activists and energy. Proclaiming that "They can outlaw an organization, but they cannot outlaw the movement of a people determined to be free," Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth forms the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) in Birmingham. In Mobile, Rev. Joseph Lowery builds the Alabama Civic Affairs Association with bus segregation as its target. And these groups are no longer restrained by the national NAACP's distaste for mass action and civil disobedience.

Meanwhile, relentless efforts by the power-structure to defeat the boycott continue. They can't stop people from walking, but if they can suppress the organized carpools they believe some Blacks will be forced back onto the busses in order to get to work, and they're convinced that once some return, others will surrender to inconvenience and follow. Police harassment of drivers and riders waiting at pickup points ratchets upwards. The White Citizens Council increases its pressure on insurance providers to cancel policies on cars and drivers participating in the carpool. The state threatens to suspend the drivers licenses and impound the cars of those cited for multiple traffic offenses.

Boycott supporters in the North raise enough funds to buy 19 station wagons and give one to each Montgomery church actively supporting the boycott. These "rolling churches" are soon running regular routes throughout the day to pick up and drop off boycotters. Drivers can be rotated so that no individual collects too many tickets, and impounding a car owned by a church is legally more difficult than doing so to one owned by an individual. The Citizens Council labors to block them, four times the insurance policies on the church cars are canceled. King family friend T.M. Alexander recalls:

I was in the insurance business. ... And the bus boycott started in Montgomery. Well, immediately in the insurance industry the word passed around, 'Don't nobody insure Martin Luther King's [station wagons] that were given to him.' ... Because if they couldn't get the public liability and property damage insurance, they couldn't drive [them]. If they couldn't drive [them], they couldn't take these domestics and these employees to their various jobs. Naturally the people having to work, they woulda had to go back on the buses. So this was one way that they were hoping to break the bus boycott. Well, King couldn't get any insurance anywhere ... so he called me and asked if I could help him get some liability insurance. Well, then I called some of the companies that I was dealin' with here in Atlanta, knowing that I was giving 'em thousands of dollars' worth of premiums. They said, 'Alexander, we'd do anything in the world for you. You give us a lot of business. But the word has been passed 'round throughout the Southeast: Anybody that insures those station wagons in Montgomery will be kicked out of the insurance field.' [Alexander contacts an agent in Chicago with connections to Lloyd's of London.] I convinced this man to give us a binder, and he cabled Lloyd's and got me a binder on nineteen station wagons, and the policy read like this: "Nineteen Christian churches, nineteen station wagons, Montgomery, Alabama. Signed 'Lloyd's of London.' — T.M. Alexander. [3]

As they've been doing for six long months, on Monday, June 4, the men, women, and children of Montgomery's Black community wake with the sun and begin their long walks. The carpool drivers top off their tanks and start transporting those assembled at the dispatch stations. But on this Monday in a downtown Federal courtroom, a panel of three Federal judges rule 2-1 in Browder v Gayle that the city's bus segregation laws are unconstitutional. City attorneys immediately appeal the ruling. While their appeal is pending, the buses remain segregated and the boycotters have to keep walking in the stifling heat and humidity of an Alabama summer, but now they are filled with optimism and pride — they have held on, refused to bow, and victory is in sight.

On August 25, dynamite explodes in the front yard of the Trinity Lutheran parsonage, home of Rev. Robert Graetz and his family, who are among the few whites who support the boycott. Using their "investigation" as a pretext, the police seize his personal papers and letters and then grill the minister as if he were the criminal. Mayor Gayle, still vainly seeking the mythical white agitators who have stirred up his happy and contented Colored folk, publicly accuses Graetz of bombing his own home as ".. a publicity stunt to build up interest of the Negroes in their campaign."

On November 13, Alabama state judge Eugene Carter convenes court to issue an injunction shutting down the carpool system on which the boycott depends. Under its terms, Blacks are forbidden to gather on street corners to wait for rides, and anyone who is merely accused of operating a carpool can be summarily jailed for Contempt of Court without trial. Despair almost overwhelms the boycotters who fill the seats, and in the words of Dr. King: "The clock said it was noon, but it was midnight in my soul." Suddenly, while the judge is still reading his order, word reaches the Montgomery courtroom that without wasting time on useless arguments the United States Supreme Court has decisively rejected the city's appeal and affirmed the ruling that bus segregation is unconstitutional. Jubilation breaks out among the Black spectators as Carter pounds his gavel and futilely shouts for order.

Like petulant children, the city Commissioners stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the Supreme Court decision as communicated to the world by radio, telephone, telegraph, television and newsprint. They are determined to enforce bus segregation until the ruling is physically delivered to them on a piece of paper. With the carpools now shut down, this means that Montgomery Blacks have to walk on through chill Fall rains for another five weeks as the Court's sluggish bureaucracy takes their leisure time to generate the necessary paperwork and deliver it to Montgomery.

Finally, on Thursday, December 20, U.S. marshals personally serve notice on city officials. That night a giant mass meeting declares victory after 381 days — the boycott is ended. The next day at dawn, Blacks begin boarding the buses, sitting wherever they please.

We had won self-respect. We had won a feeling that we had achieved, had accomplished. We felt that we were somebody, that somebody had to listen to us, that we had forced the white man to give what we knew was a part of our citizenship. If you have never had the feeling that this is the other man's country and you are an alien in it, but that this is your country, too, then you don't know what I'm talking about. But it is a hilarious feeling that just goes all over you, that makes you feel that America is a great country and we're going to do more to make it greater. — Jo Ann Robinson. [7]

Important Points

For more information:
Books:
     Montgomery Bus Boycott & Rosa Parks books
     Martin Luther King books
Web:
     Montgomery Bus Boycott 1955-1956
     Martin Luther King
     Rosa Parks
     Dr. King's address to first boycott mass meeting (King Papers Project, Stanford University)
Documents: The Montgomery Story (Comic Book)

 


1955 Quotation Sources:

1. I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, Charles Payne.
2. On the Road to Freedom, Charlie Cobb.
3. My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South, Howell Raines.
4. Stride Toward Freedom, Martin Luther King.
5. Parting the Waters, America in the King Years 1954-1963, Taylor Branch.
6. Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, by Peter Levy.
7. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement, by Hampton & Fayer.


1954

1956

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