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Alabama's Civil Rights Trail
An Illustrated Guide to the Cradle of Freedom
By Frye Gaillard, Jennifer Lindsay, Jane DeNeefe
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
THE MONTGOMERY STORY
The city of Montgomery, always central to the history of Alabama, was the birthplace of the civil rights movement in the state—and a critical part of the struggle nationwide. The Montgomery bus boycott, which gave the movement such iconic figures as Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was also a massive grassroots effort that ended in unequivocal success. Pursuing their goals on parallel fronts, the black leaders of Montgomery not only maintained their yearlong boycott but also secured a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation of buses was unconstitutional.
The victory did not come easily. In the winter of 1956, the homes and churches of many leaders were bombed as tension in the city reached a fever pitch. But both in the courts and as a model for action on a grassroots level, the boycott gave hope to African Americans all over the country. Nor was it the only role Montgomery played. In May 1961, a group of freedom riders were beaten at the Montgomery Greyhound station, but they vowed to continue their ride to Mississippi, serving notice to the nation that violence would not intimidate nonviolence.
And in March 1965, Montgomery made national headlines again when thousands of marchers made the trek from Selma, demonstrating powerfully for the right to vote. In the simultaneous battles against legal segregation and in the pursuit of genuine democracy in the South, no other community played a more important role, and no group of citizens demonstrated greater courage.
Here, tied to the sites at which they occurred, are some of the stories of the Montgomery movement.
E. D. Nixon and Rosa Parks: Drawing the Line
The Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery stands at the place where history was made, where Mrs. Parks, in December 1955, refused to relinquish her seat on a bus. That act of defiance would soon become one of the most celebrated moments of the civil rights era. More specifically, it would launch the Montgomery bus boycott, a movement of the masses in which Mrs. Parks became the dignified symbol of resistance. But she was only one player in the drama. Indeed her act of personal courage might have passed unnoticed if not for the toughness of E. D. Nixon, an African American labor leader who believed, as strongly as anyone in Montgomery, that it was time for his community to take a stand.
Rosa Parks didn't know that this would be the day. On December 1, 1955, she boarded the bus as she had many times when it stopped at Court Square in the heart of downtown. Almost certainly, she didn't give a lot of thought to the history of that corner—how it had once been the site of the old slave market, or how in 1866, in a triumphant moment just after the Civil War, the emancipation parade had passed nearby, the first such celebration in the city.
To be sure, those things mattered to Mrs. Parks. She knew the history of racial oppression in the South and was becoming more active in the struggle against it. But on the afternoon of December 1, she was simply tired. She had put in another long day at the Montgomery Fair department store, and with her bursitis acting up, she settled gratefully into the first vacant seat. At the next stop, in front of what was then the Empire Theater, a white man boarded the bus and found no empty seats in the front. Mrs. Parks was sitting just behind the dividing line between black and white, and the driver, James Blake, ordered her to move.
Like many other black citizens, Mrs. Parks had had previous run-ins with Blake. At a time when discourtesy was too often the rule, the driver had developed a nasty reputation, and once again he was living up to it. "You better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats," he told several blacks who were sitting near the front.
Three other passengers got up to move, but Mrs. Parks did not. When Blake threatened angrily to have her arrested, she looked up calmly from where she was sitting and replied, "You may do that."
The police came quickly and took her to jail, and it was then that she felt her first rush of fear. She noticed that her throat felt scratchy and dry, but there was only one water fountain at the jail, and the policemen told her it was only for whites. They did allow her to make a phone call, and by the time she was able to reach her family, word of her arrest was beginning to spread. One of the first to hear was E. D. Nixon, which was no surprise, for if you were black and in trouble in Montgomery, Nixon was usually the person you called.
He was a handsome man, ramrod straight at the age of fifty-six, with neatly cropped hair that was starting to gray. He was already a veteran civil rights leader, having led a voting rights march in 1940 and having served as president of the NAACP. He lived a quarter of a mile from Mrs. Parks in a sturdy brick house on Clinton Avenue, and after posting her bond on December 1, accompanied by a white attorney, Clifford Durr, he asked her to serve as a symbol for the movement.
He knew she was not the first to be arrested or to refuse to relinquish her seat on a bus. But he also knew that in the African American community of Montgomery, there was nobody more universally respected. Like Nixon, Mrs. Parks was a leader in the NAACP, where her passion was working with children, teaching them their rights, but also their responsibilities, as citizens.
Nixon also knew that, earlier in the year, she had experienced a moment of personal revelation, a watershed interlude in her life, when she visited the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. It was a beautiful place nestled back in the hills, where a native southerner by the name of Myles Horton had set out to train a generation of activists. Beginning in 1932, when the Depression's grip grew deeper in the South, Horton, a white man, was determined to create a sanctuary—a place where disaffected people could gather and talk about ways to build a better world.
In the beginning, most of his constituency was white—miners, mill workers, and pulpwood cutters who made a living from the forests. But twenty years into Myles Horton's experiment, the prevailing issue was racial understanding. During Rosa Parks's two-week visit, she found herself part of an integrated group, and the experience was like nothing she had known. Never, she said, in her forty-two years had she been around white people who were willing to accept a black person as an equal. It was an encounter that left her with a new understanding, for if she had always known that segregation was wrong, now at Highlander she could see the alternative.
The following December, in the wake of her arrest, she felt herself driven by a heightened sense of purpose. As Nixon made the case for massive protest, she told him quietly she would do what she could.
"I'll go along with you, Mr. Nixon," she said.
Nixon immediately set the grapevine humming. He left a message for Fred Gray, an African American attorney in Montgomery, who, as soon as he received it, put in a call to Jo Ann Robinson. Mrs. Robinson, at the time, was an English professor at Alabama State College and president of the Women's Political Council. She was a woman of influence who was ready to move, and who thought it was time to boycott the buses.
Around midnight on December 1, she and her closest friends on the council gathered at Alabama State, and began to draft a letter of protest. "Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down," they wrote. "Negroes have rights too.... We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest."
As the women were running off flyers at the college, Mrs. Robinson telephoned Nixon, letting him know of their idea for a boycott. Nixon immediately endorsed the plan, saying he had been thinking of the same thing himself. At the very least, it could buttress the battle he was seeking in the courts. But it was already 3:00 A.M. on Friday, and if the boycott was really to start on Monday, that left them three days to organize the most far-reaching protest in the history of Montgomery. Nixon knew that they would need more help.
At 5:00 A.M., he called Ralph Abernathy, a twenty-nine-year-old Baptist minister, and told him of the boycott. Nixon knew that Montgomery's strong community of black ministers would be essential in spreading the word, and he was pleased to get Abernathy's promise of support. A short time later, Nixon called another of Montgomery's ministers, a relative newcomer named Martin Luther King Jr. Now twenty-six, King had come to the city in 1954 and taken over the pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist, one of Montgomery's most prestigious black churches.
In a pair of conversations on Friday morning, Nixon asked King to make his church available for a strategy session that afternoon. King cautiously agreed, and late in the day, about fifty black leaders gathered in the basement. Their meeting lasted until nearly midnight, as they ran off more flyers to help spread the word and debated details of their massive undertaking. By Saturday, December 3, more than thirty-five thousand flyers were circulating in the African American community, and the following morning the message went out again from the pulpits.
And there was one other thing. Already on Friday, Nixon had telephoned Joe Azbell, a white reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, offering him a major news tip. He told Azbell about the boycott, knowing that the slant of the story wouldn't matter. As long as the reporter wrote about their plans, even a hostile account would spread the word. But in fact when the article appeared on Sunday, Nixon found it evenhanded enough, its headline cutting to the heart of the news: Negro Groups Ready Boycott of City Lines.
All in all, he thought, the preparations could not have gone better. He was eager to see the results on Monday.
When the morning came, he rose at dawn, and the results exceeded anything he had hoped for. Buses that were normally filled with black workers were now rumbling empty through the streets of Montgomery. It didn't take much of a leap to understand that the community was poised on the brink of major change.
What to See
Montgomery is rich in historical markers, many of which tell the story of the boycott. At the Cleveland Courts public housing project on what is now Rosa Parks Avenue, a marker on a hill at the horseshoe entrance takes note of the fact that this is where Mrs. Parks once lived, and where she and Nixon first met to talk about her arrest. Her apartment itself, unit 634, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
At 647 Clinton Avenue, less than a quarter of a mile to the south, another marker stands at E. D. Nixon's former home, a brick house in a modest residential neighborhood.
The Rosa Parks Library and Museum at 232 Montgomery Street now dominates the site of her famous arrest, and the displays inside, including a replica of the bus, carry a visitor powerfully back in time.
A long city block to the south is Court Square, where Mrs. Parks first boarded the bus, and where other markers note the long and complicated history of the area. This crossroads corner in the heart of downtown was once the site of the old slave market. But another, more hopeful marker celebrates the passing of the first Emancipation Parade on January 2, 1866.
And finally, outside the museum, another gold-lettered sign points precisely to the site of the arrest, which occurred in front of the old Empire Theater.
FLIP SIDE OF THE MARKER
On the other side of the historical marker denoting the watershed arrest of Rosa Parks, there's an account of an unrelated event—the first public concert by Hank Williams, a soon-to-be country star, who appeared at the Empire Theater in 1938. The marker points out that Williams, an Alabama native, went on to greater fame at the Grand Ole Opry. But it says very little about the forces that shaped him, specifically the black musicians he knew in his boyhood.
Williams grew up in Georgiana and Greenville, a pair of small towns in Butler County, where his closest friend and musical mentor was a black street singer by the name of Rufus Payne. Payne, who also worked part-time as a janitor, was a consummate musical performer, a man in his fifties who sang the blues, played the slide guitar, and taught young Hank how to sing from his heart.
In a harshly segregated South, Payne, whose nickname was Tee-Tot, worried occasionally about what people would think, particularly when the young white boy, not yet in his teens, brought along his own Silvertone guitar and began playing with Payne on the sidewalks of town. More than a decade later, when Williams emerged as a country music star, he carried with him the memories of Tee-Tot, as well as the black and white hymns of the South's rural churches, and all of it came together in his songs.
Some scholars have argued that long before the legal cracks in the walls of segregation, with performers such as Hank Williams the cultural lines began to blur in the music of the South (see chapter 9).
Vernon Johns and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Men of God
The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, home pulpit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stands almost literally in the shadow of the capitol on a corner where history has passed in review. Jefferson Davis was inaugurated nearby as the first president of the Confederacy; Governor George Wallace gave his inaugural address just one block away; and the Selma to Montgomery march passed by the church on the final leg of that history-making journey.
But more than anything else, this unimposing brick church on Dexter Avenue—a staging ground for the Montgomery bus boycott—provided a home in the 1950s for King and his predecessor Vernon Johns, two of the most powerful voices that the black community of Montgomery had ever heard.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not the first to cry freedom from the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Before King came to Montgomery in 1954, the Reverend Vernon Johns had emerged as one of the venerated preachers in the country. Even before his arrival at Dexter, one of Johns's sermons, "Transfigured Moments," had been included in an anthology of America's greatest sermons. "It is a heart strangely unChristian," he had written, "that cannot thrill with joy when the least of men begin to pull in the direction of the stars."
At Dexter Avenue, where Johns served from 1947 to 1952, the congregation loved the sound of such words, but found Johns somewhat frightening as well. He was a fiery, barrel-chested man, who wore disheveled suits and wire-rimmed glasses and was fluent in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. He loved the poetry of Byron and Keats, and the Negro spirituals written by slaves. He hated the indignities that went with segregation, and was not afraid to say so.
Once in Montgomery, after police beat an African American man with a tire iron, Johns announced that he would preach the next Sunday on the following topic: "It's Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery." The Klan burned a cross at his church that Saturday, but Johns was undeterred. Before an overflow crowd the following morning, he compared police brutality, and the ugly history of lynchings in the South, with the "lynching" of Jesus Christ himself. Many church members were uneasy with the message. They feared that Johns would only stir people's anger—white as well as black—in a part of the country where nothing ever changed.
They responded differently to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who came to Dexter after Johns's departure in 1952. King was only twenty-five years old. He was a smallish, mostly soft-spoken man, with large, dark eyes and an affability that was somehow tinged with reserve. But he was a powerful force in the Dexter Avenue pulpit, a preacher with the eloquence of Vernon Johns and an equally strong concern for social justice. After the arrest of Rosa Parks, King was chosen to lead the bus boycott in part because he was new to Montgomery and was not yet entrenched, or identified with any one faction, in the various turf wars of the black community.
As King already understood clearly, there were a number of other strong leaders in town—ministers, including Ralph Abernathy, who had developed major followings of their own; and the labor leader E. D. Nixon, who was fearless and wise and willing to lay his life on the line; and the African American attorney Fred Gray; and brilliant educators at Alabama State College. But if talented leaders in Montgomery were abundant, King quickly took his place at the center of the group.
One of his fellow ministers, John Porter, who was then an assistant at Dexter Avenue, thought King had a curious gift of humility, a steady ego that seldom drew him into pointless conflict and that helped him treat his fellow leaders with respect. As Porter noted with deep admiration, King could allow debates over strategy to swirl, and then state his own case in a way that usually pulled people together. But more than anything, he offered inspiration. On December 5, 1955, after the first successful day of the boycott, King addressed a rally at Holt Street Baptist Church—a massive gathering of more than four thousand people, who spilled from the pews to the streets outside.
Excerpted from Alabama's Civil Rights Trail by Frye Gaillard, Jennifer Lindsay, Jane DeNeefe. Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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