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Daybreak of Freedom The Montgomery Bus Boycott
By Stewart Burns
University of North Carolina Press Copyright © 1997 Stewart Burns
All right reserved.
The Proving Ground
"Our leaders is just we ourself."
--Claudette Colvin, sixteen, Montgomery
federal court, May 11, 1956
On the morning of December 5, 1955, the black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, inaugurated a year-long boycott of the racially segregated city buses. That afternoon, the boycott leaders elected Martin Luther King Jr., twenty-six-year-old pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), which they formed to direct the protest. Although King did not start the bus boycott, he grasped its significance at once. Chosen more because of existing leadership divisions than his own perceived strengths, he confidently took charge. When the mass protest persevered against unrelenting pressures from city hall, county courts, and white extremists, King emerged as a national and international symbol of the African American freedom struggle and was embraced by white and black media alike. While newspapers and magazines promoted an image of the young Baptist preacher as the bus boycott's prime mover, he acted within a broad structure of grassroots leadership that had been preparing the ground for black community mobilization long before he arrived in the Cradle of the Confederacy.
Founded in 1819 and designated the Alabama capital in 1847, the city in the heart of the fertile Black Belt in the southern half of the state sat on a bluff overlooking the winding Alabama River. Montgomery had served as a center for cotton marketing and slave auctions before the Civil War. In February 1861 ex--Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis chaired a meeting in Montgomery of white leaders from six southern states, including Alabama, that had decided to secede from the Union. These slaveholders drafted a constitution for the new Confederacy, elected Davis president, and made Montgomery the first Confederate capital. Although during the next century the city diversified its economy and developed manufacturing industries that included lumber, furniture, and fertilizer, its industrial base remained much smaller than that of Birmingham, 100 miles north and three times the population, where in the 1950s black families had almost twice the median income than they had in the capital.
From World War I onward, thousands of rural Alabama blacks relocated to Montgomery, searching for a better life. White supremacist interference combined with agricultural mechanization, foreign cotton competition, and the boll weevil plague made it increasingly difficult to survive as a farmer or sharecropper. In the 1940s and 1950s African Americans were drawn to Montgomery because of its emergence as a major industrial, commercial, and military hub, offering lobs, better schools, and a wider world. Unlike many southern cities, however, Montgomery's black influx did not keep pace with the arrival of rural whites and the departure of Montgomery blacks for northern cities. While the city's counted black population doubled from 20,000 in 1920 to 42,750 thirty years later (total population was 109,000 in 1950), its proportion declined during this period from 45 to 40 percent of the total (37 percent in 1955). During the 1940s alone, the white population grew by about 50 percent while the black community gained half that much.
Most Montgomery blacks in the 1950s worked in service jobs or as laborers, many at the two neighboring air force bases. More than half of employed black women worked as domestic servants in white households. A majority of African American adults could be classified as "working poor"; black median income was $1,000 in 1949, less than half of that of the total city population. Their needs for education, religion, medical and dental care, and other professional and business services--which due to racial barriers were not met by whites--fostered the growth of a small but relatively prosperous black middle class. This group benefited materially to some degree from the segregated social structure, while sharing its inequities and humiliations with the less well off whose needs they served. The core of this emerging professional class was city public school teachers and faculty at the black Alabama State College, which was established in Montgomery in 1887 primarily to train black teachers. The most civic-minded and politically active of these educators tended to be women.
Alabama's African American citizenry could take pride in a strong tradition of political activism that began during slavery and was first openly expressed during Reconstruction in local "union leagues" asserting civil and economic rights and in successful black legislative campaigns. In the 1880s and 1890s impoverished Alabama sharecroppers and tenant farmers formed chapters of the semicovert Colored Farmers Alliance and joined a short-lived electoral coalition with white Populists. In 1901 black petitions and other pressure failed to sway the state constitutional convention from disenfranchising black citizens.
The hardening of white supremacy at the turn of the century enhanced the popularity of Alabama educator and politician Booker T. Washington, whose accommodationist strategy held out hope for economic progress in the teeth of intensified oppression. Thousands of rural black families sought to escape racial subjugation by migrating to cities and to the North. Those who stayed tried to avoid white hostility, which was accentuated by the Ku Klux Klan resurgence of the 1920s. A small minority of Alabama blacks dared to resist the suppression of rights. Most notable was the early 1930s campaign to defend the "Scottsboro boys," nine youths who were improperly convicted of raping two white women. This campaign coincided with creation of the Alabama Sharecroppers Union in Tallapoosa and other southern Alabama counties near Montgomery; the union attracted several thousand members and organized an effective strike of cotton pickers in 1935 but did not survive violent attacks by sheriffs and vigilantes. In Montgomery and other Alabama cities black activism during the 1930s and 1940s centered on voter registration efforts, which were bolstered by the Supreme Court's decision in Smith v. Allright outlawing the South's white-only primary elections.
The sudden Montgomery uprising of December 1955 did not take black Americans completely by surprise. In the decade since World War II black leaders had felt the pulse of their people's surging aspirations for freedom and fairness. These aspirations were vitalized and legitimized by the Supreme Court's public school desegregation decision in May 1954, which also heightened white resistance. But to the white mainstream, North and South--still sleepwalking through the nightmare of McCarthyism--the mass protest seemed as foreign as revolutionary upheavals in Africa and Asia. And that was the point: King was one of numerous contemporary blacks who came to view the Montgomery movement as part of a worldwide struggle of peoples of color against colonialism and white supremacy. Jamaican Marxist historian and activist C. L. R. James wrote in March 1957 that the bus crusade was as "revolutionary ... profoundly so" as Ghana's successful independence campaign and the autumn 1956 Hungarian anticommunist revolt--despite all three movements' departure from proper Leninist principles. "Here is something that is new," he observed about Montgomery, in his opinion "one of the most astonishing events in the history of human struggle." Toward the end of the protest King himself heralded "the birth of a new age."
The bus boycott was a thoroughly local movement, despite its external support. It served for a decade as the model community movement, influencing activists in southwest Georgia, Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, northern Florida, along the Mississippi Delta, and many other places. Unlike his outsider role everywhere else, King was the chosen representative of the Montgomery black community, which created, legitimated, and sustained his leadership. Never again would he participate in a local movement with such solid, nearly total, black community support. Never again would a movement of this era, black, white, or brown, be so effective in uniting a community across class, gender, and age.
The secret of success? A network of intrepid organizers, situated in overlapping black institutions, organized the entire community that was fractured both economically and geographically. Backing ranged from top to bottom, from the black elite--notably, Alabama State College president H. Councill Trenholm, who criticized tactics while proffering advice through his wife--to winos living on the streets who religiously guarded car pool fleets from night-time sabotage. It might have been expected that the small cadre of activist ministers, professionals, and business owners would go all out for the cause. But this vanguard harnessed women's clubs, sororities, fraternal orders, ministers' associations, and other groups and corralled nearly all preachers, even the most apolitical or conservative, along with teachers, physicians, dentists, barbers, beauticians, undertakers, and shop owners. Led by this black middle class, and leading it by turns, marched the movement's foot soldiers from the class of working poor, the great majority of participants. Of these, female domestic workers (maids and cooks) predominated.
Indeed, the bus boycott carried forward and consummated the communitarian lifeblood of the African American freedom struggle. For a century and a half black leaders had invoked direct action and protest when necessary, but communal support and resource sharing were the mainspring of both survival and change. Black resistance to white supremacy had always been most compelling when community building and protest activity infused and reinforced each other. More than any other instance of the twentieth century, the bus boycott mobilized black community institutions and resources as tools of reform and used protest as catalyst for community uplift and moral and spiritual regeneration. In every sense the bus protest was driven by, and fully expressed, the energy of collective self-help. Even the name Montgomery Improvement Association, which might have been inspired partly by Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association of the 1920s, conveyed the convergence of community and movement. Leaders understood that improving or elevating the black community would have been merely cosmetic without structural renewal, which entailed reshaping mores, customs, and power relations between black and white and among blacks themselves. If in the larger American culture liberalism and communitarianism spoke different languages, the black world, exemplified by the Montgomery experience, could not afford a dichotomy between fighting for individual rights and fortifying the community bonds that made it possible to actualize human rights in everyday life.
When it grew evident that the bus boycott would have to endure past a few days or weeks, King extended his leadership beyond city and state limits. The leaders learned that segregation could not be reformed, which was their initial goal, and certainly not in isolation. It would have to be abolished, throughout the South. This new abolitionism, they came to realize, would ultimately require a coordinated Southwide movement with major northern support. King spoke frequently at church and community rallies in the North not only to raise funds but also to solidify a growing community of black and white activists around the country and to marshal the backing of the black church, particularly his own National Baptist Convention, USA. He forged ties with an established black leadership network of preachers, politicians, educators, and journalists. He allied with white liberals and progressives in pacifist, labor, and religious circles. Partly by design but more by the dynamic of events, leaders built the bus boycott such that it set the stage organizationally, intellectually, and spiritually for the massive national movement that sprung out of Montgomery. King's oratorical leadership proved as vital in this regard as the new structures, networks, and alliances he helped create.
But King did not make the movement, as civil rights leader Ella Baker pointed out later, "the movement made Martin." This was especially true in Montgomery. As veteran organizer E. D. Nixon put it, the question was not what "King did for the people of Montgomery, it's what the people of Montgomery did for Reverend King." Citizens who had bravely organized for years before he came to town vaulted him to overall leadership while holding on to their own leadership identities. Setting the tone for the coming decade, grassroots activists revered King as the central figure but did not uncritically follow his lead or always acknowledge his practical as opposed to symbolic leadership. When plaintiff Claudette Colvin, a high school student, was asked in the federal court hearing that led to the nullification of bus segregation who was the protest leader, she testified, "Our leaders is just we ourself."
She meant what she said. On March 2, 1955, the fifteen-year-old eleventh grader boarded a city bus outside King's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and refused to give up her seat for a white passenger when ordered by the driver. Colvin replied that she was "just as good as any white person" and was not going to move. She told a policeman summoned by the driver: "I didn't know that it was a law that a colored person had to get up and give a white person a seat when there were not any more vacant seats and colored people were standing up." Colvin was legally correct about the city ordinance, which required a Negro to relinquish a seat only if a vacant one was available; the state statute, however, had no such provision. As two officers roughly dragged her from the bus, she insisted: "It's my constitutional right to sit here.... You have no right to do this." They handcuffed and jailed her.
Colvin's arrest, which fortuitously occurred amid a municipal election campaign, galvanized Montgomery's African American community. Two black civic organizations, the Women's Political Council (WPC) and the Citizens Coordinating Committee, met with city commissioners and bus officials. The delegation was led by WPC president and Alabama State College English professor Jo Ann Robinson and included E. D. Nixon, Rufus Lewis, Mary Fair Burks, Rosa Parks, and King. At the first meeting the officials appeared conciliatory, but at the second one they were intransigent. Bus company attorney Jack Crenshaw spurned any modification of the seating policy as illegal under the city's bus segregation ordinance. Former WPC president Burks recalled that the prospect of "a boycott was mentioned," apparently by Robinson.
Authorities threw the book at Colvin, charging her with violating the state segregation law, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. "Instead of being exonerated as we anticipated," Robinson wrote in her memoir, she was convicted and placed on indefinite probation. "She had remained calm all during the days of her waiting period and during the trial, but when she was found guilty, Claudette's agonized sobs penetrated the atmosphere of the courthouse." After the verdict, "blacks were as near a breaking point as they had ever been. Resentment, rebellion, and unrest were evident in all Negro circles. For a few days, large numbers refused to use the buses" in a spontaneous protest. King reported that "the long repressed feelings of resentment on the part of the Negroes had begun to stir. The fear and apathy which had for so long cast a shadow on the life of the Negro community were gradually fading before a new spirit of courage and self-respect."
On October 21, 1955, eighteen-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat for a white woman. "I was sitting behind the sign that said for colored," she testified as a plaintiff in the Browder v. Gayle federal lawsuit. "A white lady got on the bus and she asked the bus driver to tell me to move out of my seat for her to sit there. He asked me to move three times, and I refused. So he got up and said he would call the cops.... I told him: 'I am not going to move out of my seat. I am not going to move anywhere. I got the privilege to sit here like anybody else.' So he say I was under arrest, and he took me to the station." She was jailed briefly, then tried in city court and fined nine dollars--not for violating the segregation law, since she apparently had not, but for failing to obey an officer. Community leaders did not find out about her inconspicuous arrest and conviction until several weeks later. Both Colvin and Smith believed that they were not breaking the law.
By the early 1950s ill treatment on city buses had emerged as the most common and acute black community problem, since so many thousands, especially working women and schoolchildren, depended on the bus for daily transport. It inflicted, and symbolized, the injustice of Jim Crow apartheid; it proved the impossibility of "separate but equal" accommodations. Resentment and anger intensified, fueled by expectations of better race relations in the post--World War and post-Korea era. Women's Political Council leaders were chiefly responsible for converting the personal pain of abusive treatment on buses into a visible public issue. Burks, chair of Alabama State's English Department, had founded the WPC in 1949 after experiencing allegedly racist conduct by Montgomery police. Dexter congregants like Burks and Robinson comprised the core of the group's membership of middle-class professional women, many of whom taught at Alabama State or in public schools. The WPC's initial purposes were to foster black women's involvement in civic affairs, to promote voter registration through citizenship education, and to aid rape victims.
During fall 1949 Robinson joined the newly formed women's group, having just begun teaching at the black college. Upon completing her first semester, she boarded a bus to the airport to spend Christmas holidays with family in Cleveland, Ohio. Unfamiliar with seating rules, the young professor sat down in the front white section of the almost empty bus. The driver yelled at her and nearly struck her. She fled in terror. Shaken by the incident, she vowed to remedy such racial abuse. When she succeeded Burks as WPC president in the early 1950s, the group focused more on bus treatment and other everyday concerns, such as police brutality and inferior parks and playgrounds. Robinson persuaded Mayor W. A. Gayle to allow WPC leaders to attend all city meetings that affected black residents. They learned how to lobby white officials face to face.
The WPC was the largest, best organized, and most assertive black civic organization in the Alabama capital. It cooperated with other community groups and individuals that had been organizing longer but had prioritized voter registration and electoral politics, particularly after the Supreme Court abolished southern primaries that excluded black voters. E. D. Nixon, a Pullman train porter and longtime head of the Alabama region of A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, founded the Montgomery Voters League in 1943 to promote black registration and voting. In June 1941, the month of a threatened black march on Washington against racial discrimination in war industry, he led several hundred African Americans to the county courthouse in an attempt to register, which was blocked by county officials. Registration efforts gathered steam after World War II, when black combat veterans came home with raised confidence and self-esteem. They expected to be rewarded for fighting for freedom overseas with more freedom at home.
Nixon hammered away at a host of rights issues as president of the Montgomery NAACP branch (1946-50) and the state NAACP conference (1947-49). Rufus Lewis, an undertaker who had coached a championship Alabama State football team in the 1930s, made voter registration a single-minded crusade. In the late 1940s he formed the Citizens Club to promote registering and voting among veterans and other young people. A handful of ministers too had battled racial injustice. In 1949 Rev. Solomon S. Seay sought redress without success for a young black woman raped by two white police officers, After the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education he led a campaign to desegregate public schools. For four years, through 1952, Vernon Johns railed against segregation from the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. To promote black economic development he helped set up and sponsored a produce marketing cooperative for local farmers. Owing partly to friction among African American leaders, such as that between the middle-class Lewis and working-class Nixon, and to resignation in the black community, but more because of monolithic resistance by the white elite, none of these ameliorative efforts made much headway by mid-decade. Black leaders faced a strategic dilemma that would bedevil the freedom movement for years to come. They lacked political power and knew that they could not really change their circumstances until they were fully enfranchised. But electoral initiatives toward this end, vital for long-term progress, did not offer immediate solutions to the community's pressing problems.
Early Thursday evening, December 1, 1955, after a long day of pre-Christmas tailoring at Montgomery Fair department store, Rosa Parks was arrested on a city bus when, ordered by the driver, she refused to give up her seat in the unreserved midsection to a white man. As with Colvin, no vacant seat was available, so she would have had to stand, carrying her packages. The forty-two-year-old seamstress was a civil rights activist of long standing who had served as secretary of both the Montgomery and Alabama state NAACP. For years she had advised the local NAACP Youth Council, which she had helped found in the 1940s; she persuaded Colvin to join the activist youth group after her March arrest. Although Parks had not planned her calm, determined protest, she later recalled that she had "a life history of being rebellious against being mistreated because of my color." The time had come "when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed.... I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen." Reflecting later on her motives, Parks said that she reused to obey the driver's command "because I was so involved with the attempt to bring about freedom from this kind of thing.... I felt just resigned to give what I could to protest against the way I was being treated, and felt that all of our meetings, trying to negotiate, bring about petitions before the authorities ... really hadn't done any good at all."
Nixon, whom Parks had worked with for a dozen years in the NAACP and as his secretary in his union's regional headquarters, bailed her out of city jail. Two liberal whites accompanied him: local attorney Clifford Durr, who had served as federal communications commissioner during the New Deal, and his wife, Virginia Foster Durr, a leader of the antisegregation Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), a crusader against the discriminatory poll tax, and sister-in-law of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. The influential justice and ex-Alabama senator would play a crucial role in the boycott saga later in the year. The four returned to Parks's small apartment on Cleveland Avenue where Nixon persuaded her, over her husband's opposition, to use her arrest to challenge the constitutionality of city and state bus segregation laws. Parks's unblemished character and high stature in the African American community made her the ideal representative of black grievances and hopes.
Later that evening Nixon conferred on the telephone with Jo Ann Robinson, who had learned of the arrest from Fred Gray, one of two black lawyers in town and a protege of Clifford Durr. Robinson and Nixon agreed to bolster a slow-moving legal challenge with a one-day bus boycott on Monday, December 5, the date of Parks's trial, to dramatize the issue and demonstrate black unity and determination. But while Nixon wanted first to enlist backing of black ministers, Robinson and her WPC colleagues kicked off the long-discussed bus boycott on their own. They did not want it held back by more cautious leaders. Near midnight Robinson typed a flyer calling for direct action and drove to the Alabama State campus. She and a business professor spent the night mimeographing thousands of copies of the half-page flyer. The next day, between and after classes, two students helped her deliver bundles throughout black neighborhoods.
While flyers circulated around town, Nixon called the preachers. Hesitating at first, King offered his support and agreed to host a meeting of the city's black leadership at his church. Later that day ministers joined with the WPC, Citizens Coordinating Committee, Nixon's Progressive Democrats, and other black groups to prepare for the Monday protest and a mass meeting at night. On Sunday morning preachers urged participation from dozens of pulpits. A front-page article about the protest in the Sunday paper, intended to alert the white community, further spread the word to blacks.
Scarcely any African Americans rode the buses on Monday, December 5. Most walked to work or school, carpooled with friends, or hitchhiked. Hundreds rode taxis; black cabdrivers voluntarily cut fares. In the morning Parks appeared in Recorder's Court with her supporters. Judge John B. Scott convicted her and fined her ten dollars plus court costs. Gray, her lawyer, appealed the verdict to a higher state court. Meeting that afternoon at Mount Zion AME Zion Church, eighteen leaders created a new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), to direct the protest. They quickly elected officers, set up committees, decided on demands, and drew up an agenda for the 7 P.M. mass meeting. Rufus Lewis nominated King, his pastor, for MIA president; participants elected him without opposition. They chose him because of his reputation as an orator--he was known locally as a compelling social gospel preacher--and because of his independence, as a relative newcomer, from long-running quarrels and rivalries among community leaders.
That evening, with little time to plan it, King delivered his first major political address at Holt Street Baptist Church in a black working-class section. He combined "the militant and the moderate," he later reflected, in encouraging the overflowing audience of several thousand to find "the moral courage to stand up for their rights," but to use the weapon of Christian love. "Let us be Christian in all of our actions," he said. "But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love. Love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.... Not only are we using the tools of persuasion but we've come to see that we've got to use the tools of coercion." After Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy read the boycott resolutions from the podium, the vast audience rose as one and with great cheering expressed their resolve to continue the boycott "until some arrangement has been worked out" with the bus company.
Leadership wore many faces during the Montgomery bus boycott. Much of it came from ordinary people acting in extraordinary ways, such as Claudette Colvin, Jo Ann Robinson, E. D. Nixon, Georgia Gilmore, Ann Pratt, and Mother Pollard. In particular, individuals exercised leadership when they purposely influenced others to challenge injustice on the buses. A pivotal act was Robinson's initiation of the mass protest by producing and distributing her flyer. Half a decade of nonconfrontational grassroots leadership, especially persistent organizing by the Women's Political Council, culminated in this breakthrough. Subsequently several dozen mainly middle-class organizers were assisted in leadership tasks by hundreds and then thousands of working-class bus riders. The latter encouraged, cajoled, and prodded family, friends, and neighbors to stay off buses, find other transportation, attend mass meetings, and donate hard-earned cash. Many with an automobile or spare time aided the car pool. Spontaneous leadership of various sorts transpired in packed autos and waiting lines at dispatch and pick-up stations. Those who lost jobs or sacrificed in other ways inspired their friends to give more and risk more. Personal example played a critical role in the spreading of leadership.
Three levels of leadership interacted and overlapped. King, Abernathy, and several other charismatic Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) preachers were mobilizers. Nixon, Robinson, and several dozen others, mostly women, comprised the organizers, including a score of ministers. As many as several thousand activists led at the microlevel of extended family, neighborhood, church, and workplace. The followers were the majority of the black population, at least 20,000 people, who, even if they seldom or never attended a mass meeting, participated by refusing to ride buses.
How did King fit in to the Montgomery movement's rich mosaic of leadership? Rooted in religious and biblical contrasts, his leadership embodied both the lion and the lamb, the patriarchal prophet and the suffering servant. On one hand, the leadership legacy that he inherited from his great-grandfather, a slave preacher, his grandfather, and his father lent him charismatic authority, poise, self-possession, and capability to marshal resources, especially money. On the other hand, a more informal leadership style that derived from less acknowledged sources--his mother and maternal grandmother, sensitive, even mystical, ministers like Howard Thurman, his encounter with humanistic psychology, his scrutiny of the Gospels, his growing identification with Jesus, his apparently genuine humility--instilled in him a genius for listening, learning, mediating, and finding sharable ground; for engaging and amplifying the needs, longings, and aspirations of the people who elevated him to his high station.
King's protest leadership spun out of his pastoral, priestly, and prophetic roles as Baptist preacher. He arrived in Montgomery one of the best educated of a rising generation of activist African American clergy, shaped by mentors like Thurman, Benjamin Mays, and William Holmes Borders, who wanted to apply the black church's power and resources to promoting racial justice. King's speaking abilities were the fruit of his immersion in Baptist church culture since early childhood, seasoned by several years of preaching in Atlanta, Boston, and Montgomery. Although other dynamic orators like Abernathy fired up mass meetings, "no person could inspire the people like him," Rufus Lewis averred. His verbal wizardry epitomized the preacher's traditional role as moral guide of the black community, galvanizing followers behind shared moral purposes of reform, uplift, and salvation. He insistently reminded his extended congregation that their movement was a unique chance to make history; that by taking part in this great moral cause they served as agents of freedom and justice. He inculcated a sense of personal responsibility to fight evil and to further good.
From the time of slavery the test of a black preacher's leadership was his capacity to lift the self-esteem and transform the self-perception of his audiences. King was so effective in mobilizing Montgomery blacks because his visionary moral appeals empowered them to act to better their lives and see themselves anew--as somebodies, as historical, even biblical actors, as a special, chosen people. Their heady sense of making history in the here and now and of helping to fulfill God's plan for His kingdom, gave them feelings of self-worth, efficacy, and sacred purpose. Jo Ann Robinson was struck by King's ability to foster moral courage; she saw participants grow to the extent they learned from him how to "maintain themselves under pressure." He taught, she recalled, that if one loses one's equilibrium, one loses one's power and sense of self. King often rhapsodized about the "new Negro" emerging in the South who had "replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity.... In Montgomery we walk in a new way. We hold our heads in a new way." The young minister's gift for translating everyday wants, needs, and longings into compelling universal principles and for dramatizing lofty moral ideas in vivid, down-to-earth word pictures made his oratory irresistible not only to all segments of the black community but also to open-minded white audiences.
King's inspirational and instructional role as preacher carried over into his moral leadership of the Montgomery black community. And his hands-on managing of Dexter and his work in the broader Baptist network molded his institutional leadership of the MIA. He ran the movement like a church writ large. His administrative style was previewed by the recommendations for Dexter's reorganization that he had pressed upon congregants a few days after moving to town. Stressing the pastor's nearly absolute authority, he had explained that leadership "never ascends from the pew to the pulpit, but it invariably descends from the pulpit to the pew."
The Dexter recommendations highlighted his delegation of authority to a select few, his reliance on an extensive committee structure, and the centrality of fund-raising. Just as Martin Luther King Sr., in the depth of the Depression, had lifted Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church from the prospect of foreclosure to prosperity, his son was determined to keep the MIA solvent and ensure sufficient funds for its costly car pool system, paid staff, and relief to victims of economic reprisal. The legacy of his father that weighed heaviest on him was the imperative of sound fiscal management and financial security. King took major responsibility for the MIA's aggressive fund-raising, although Nixon and others shared this burden. King's frequent speaking trips garnered hefty sums, setting the tone for the rest of his career. In the early months, however, MIA funding relied on local people. Pitches by King and other mobilizers raised on average two to three thousand dollars at each weekly or twice-weekly mass meeting. More came from local churches and community groups. At the end of the bus boycott the MIA faced the future with a substantial surplus, which it tried to use as capital to launch a cooperative savings and loan bank. Although the amount of outside money was significant, the boycott earned enough from its own participants to cover regular expenses (but not legal costs).
At home in his dominant position, King delegated much authority to a handful of trusted ministers, particularly the heads of the Finance and Transportation Committees. When in late spring 1956 the car pool system ran into major problems of driver shortages and profiteering--some drivers defrauded the MIA for gasoline, tires, and repairs, and even charged passengers--King pressured a reluctant Rev. Benjamin J. Simms, an Alabama State professor, to take over the faltering Transportation Committee. "It had reached the point," Simms later remembered, "that our transportation system needed full-time supervision and complete reorganization. The MIA board called an emergency meeting. We were gravely concerned that blacks would be forced to ride those buses if we didn't get ourselves organized." Simms arrived late to the meeting, and King asked him to step outside the room. "People respect you," he recalled King buttonholing him, "people know that you're a pastor and that when you say something, that's that. And you can handle this thing. We need you, Brother B. J., don't fail us." Simms still was not convinced. King said: "Do it for me and for your people." "Mike, I'll do it if you'll let me run it," Simms replied. "If I have to have any interference from the front office up there ... I can't handle it. If you let me run it, you can draw up certain guidelines, and I'll consult with the board, but I've got to have the last words within the limits." King said that he would back him "to the hilt."
Simms's vigorous leadership turned the car pool into a model of efficiency. He set up three repair shops, designated official gas stations, instituted a uniform pay scale for drivers and a system for keeping track of them, oversaw dispatchers working around the clock, and demanded meticulous record keeping. The car pool tried to ensure every black person transportation when and where they needed it. It was just beautiful, recalled Ann Smith Pratt, a hair stylist who served as Simms's chief dispatcher. "Beautiful blacks seeing one another perform efficiently on a big scale. There was something electrifying about our collective success. We developed a smooth working operation and as we got better and better, the city fathers downtown began to really panic. Most of us in transportation stayed charged up spiritually. It must have been God working.... That's where the strength must have come from." Nevertheless, frustrated by the executive board meddling he had feared, Simms resigned several months later.
As the bus boycott carried on in the face of legal repression, white intimidation, and sporadic violence, King relied increasingly on his inner circle of pastors, all Baptists except for AME ministers Solomon S. Seay and W. J. Powell. Although sometimes resentful of King's rising stardom, these loyal lieutenants backed his efforts to tighten control over the MIA. For example, they authorized him to communicate to the media or negotiate with white officials without the executive board's prior approval. In fact the board decided that only King could speak to reporters and that leaders who represented the MIA outside Montgomery "will follow a given pattern prepared by a committee for such specific speeches or submit his speech in writing to the speakers' bureau." Thus the MIA president largely controlled the movement's flow of information to the outside world.
Hierarchy and authoritarian control told only part of the story of King's leadership, however. They contrasted with, yet paradoxically provided structure and space for, his ability to listen, to pay attention, to learn. Top-down control interacted with democratic intimacy to engender a mode of leadership whose authority--claim to obedience and loyalty--was rooted in King's engaged relationship with subleaders and followers, a bond deeper than mere consent. His leadership offered a stable framework for volatile, freewheeling deliberation and dissent, encouraging conflict but keeping it in bounds. King's charisma and power, like that of Abraham Lincoln, another master of the authority and democracy dialectic, proved more compelling because these qualities were grounded in a sense of personal connection, felt as mystical by some. He strove to create with participants the "I-thou" relationship (as opposed to "I-it") that, following Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, he held up as a personalist ideal.
According to those who knew him, King's humility--the root meaning of the word is closeness to the earth--was not just an image that he learned how to dramatize on the public stage; it was sincere. It allowed him to suspend his elite mindset and enter others' worlds, meeting them on their levels and drawing them into his own. He established trust by self-revelation, admitting shortcomings and sins. His veiling of ego and eschewing of arrogance endeared him to the black masses and enabled him to transcend internecine quarrels that limited other leaders' effectiveness. His humility fertilized his folk humor--masterful joke telling and bantering--that disarmed opponents, bolstered morale, and restored group harmony. Ever the conciliator, his mediating skills were enhanced by his patience and attentiveness. In meetings he insisted on hearing out and considering everyone's view before making a decision. He typically achieved consensus by blending disparate views or finding an acceptable middle ground.
Jo Ann Robinson later recalled: "There was no other leader there with the humility, with the education, with the know-how of dealing with people who were angry and poor and hungry.... If King had not been prepared to talk with all of them, make all of them feel that they were making a contribution--and they were. Even that man who couldn't give a straight sentence was letting you know how he felt, and maybe representing the people from his area. And you had to have knowledge of all of it, in order to be able to work with all of it." Knowledge is the telling word. King's responsiveness to ordinary people, his determination to learn from them and to absorb their varying perspectives, represented a distinguishing mark of his leadership from Montgomery until the end of his life. Projecting himself as a Christlike role model of courage, compassion, and humility, King motivated participants to embrace the cause with its risk and sacrifice, to stick with it and with each other. He struggled to reconcile his faith and moral certitudes with the doubting and questioning fostered by his honest soul searching, respectful learning from others, and the inexorable contingency of human life. Subleaders and foot soldiers not only strengthened his commitment but also emboldened him to take further risks and to rise above his comfort zone and socialization. "We really pushed him a whole lot," Nixon later recalled.
In fact, initiative and direction came as much from less visible organizers as from King and his ministerial inner circle--especially from women. Because of sexism, protection of vulnerable jobs, and deference to a long tradition of leadership by black ministers, female leaders such as Robinson stayed in the background and rarely served as speakers at mass meetings or at assemblies out of town. In his Montgomery memoir, which generally minimized others' leadership, King singularly praised Robinson's contribution. "More than any other person," he wrote, she "was active on every level of the protest." Besides her influential role as strategist on the executive board and major committees, she served as a key MIA negotiator since she had accrued the most experience lobbying white officials. She also edited the MIA newsletter and, despite a full teaching load, drove in the car pool mornings and afternoons. She was one of very few women, perhaps the only one, whose voice carried weight in policy making.
Yet women did most of the everyday organizing that kept the boycott going. "We really were the ones who carried out the actions," MIA financial secretary Erna Dungee remembered. "We organized the parking lot pick-ups" and much else. Women "passed the ideas to men to a great extent." Although Robinson and Mary Fair Burks "were very vocal and articulate, especially in committee meetings," Dungee recalled that in the mass meetings women "let the men have the ideas and carry the ball. They were kind of like the power behind the throne."
Reciprocal leadership suffused the spirited mass meetings, where boycotters, many of whom were illiterate, learned, practiced, and even invented skills of participatory democracy that became integrated with familiar church rituals like call and response, praying, and singing hymns. Democratic practices included debating goals, strategies, and tactics; voting on important decisions; reaffirming or revising the leaders' mandates; training in nonviolent tactics; and fanning enthusiasm. Rev. Robert Graetz recalled that the "maids were the soldiers" who "rallied" and prodded the leaders. "Maids would stand up at mass meetings and tell about the arguments at employer's house. Maids would tell stories and people would cheer."
Georgia Gilmore, a cook, nurse, and midwife, formed the "Club from Nowhere" (the name to preserve anonymity), which sold sandwiches, pies, and cakes and donated the proceeds at mass meetings. Gilmore and her friends had chosen to give their culinary skills to the cause. "We collected $14 from amongst ourselves," she said later, "and bought some chickens, bread and lettuce, started cooking and made up a bundle of sandwiches.... When we'd raise as much as $300 for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for $500 on Thursday night. Then other ordinary folks like us started doing the same thing in their neighborhoods--competing with us, trying to raise more than us." When Inez Ricks set up a rival club, the two women's friendly jousting enlivened the meetings. In creative tension with its authoritarian center, the movement's fluid structure spread opportunities for grassroots leadership that empowered many working-class participants.
At times the foot soldiers lifted leaders' faltering morale, sometimes the other way around. King and fellow mobilizers absorbed from participants the growing moral passion that they had helped galvanize, and they reflected it back verbally as eloquent, easily grasped justifications for their struggle and sacrifice that further fortified morale. The leaders and the foot soldiers kept each other from giving up.
At least once King edged to the brink of giving up. It took all of his spiritual resources and reassurance by activists to repair his courage and equilibrium. Late at night on January 27, 1956, hounded by phone calls threatening death, unable to sleep, he sat down at the kitchen table and confessed his despair to a personal God. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right," he remembered praying. "But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
"At that moment," he recalled, "I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before, it seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: 'Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.' Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything."
Three nights later, while presiding at a mass meeting, his house was bombed. Dynamite sticks damaged the front of the house but did not harm his wife, their two-month-old daughter, Yolanda, or a companion. They had rushed to the back bedroom when they heard the bomb hit the porch. King returned to find a furious throng of several hundred blacks outside his house, many armed, who "came to do battle," his wife later recalled. Calmly, appearing free of anger, he stood on his porch with Mayor Gayle and Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers and persuaded the aroused crowd to put away their guns and go home.
"It could have been a riot, a very bloody riot," Coretta Scott King remembered. "If that had happened I think the whole cause could have been lost, and it would have been very tragic for everyone." Moreover, her husband's leadership "would have been tarnished." She saw the incident as "a turning point in the movement, a very significant moment in terms of injecting the nonviolent philosophy into the struggle." The movement might not have survived had King "not made such a forceful statement that night on our porch." This was the most dramatic and public but not the only time that he almost single-handedly steered the civil rights movement from turning violent. Acting spontaneously in the heat of the moment, he gracefully transformed the Montgomery protest's first direct encounter with violence into a public declaration of commitment to nonviolent principles, grounded in Christian faith. His action and words set a defining tone for the next decade.
Overcoming the bombing crisis buoyed King's confidence to cope with difficult trials in the months ahead. Martin and Coretta King helped each other to accept that he or she or both of them might be killed, an especially frighful prospect because of their infant child. They sustained themselves by strong faith, friends' and family support, and keeping busy. Besides caring for Yolanda and cooking for endless guests, Coretta King monitored movement news in the media, took part in meetings, advised her husband, and preserved piles of movement documents. Her best stress reliever was resuming her singing career, which she had suspended while pregnant. She gave recitals of spirituals and classical music in Montgomery churches and elsewhere during 1956 that culminated in a New York benefit concert for the bus boycott in early December, where she shared star billing with Harry Belafonte and Duke Ellington.
If the bus boycott was so rich in leadership, what difference did King make? Was he more than an eloquent "mouth piece" that the people "employed," as Aurelia Browder testified in the federal lawsuit that bore her name? He himself admitted, minutes before his house was bombed, that "if M. L. King had never been born this movement would have taken place. I just happened to be here. You know, there comes a time when time itself is ready for change. That time has come in Montgomery, and I had nothing to do with it." His involvement was important but not essential for strategizing, policy making, managing, fund-raising, and community organizing. As much as the other mobilizers combined, his oratorical leadership nurtured people's morale, commitment, courage, endurance, solidarity, and faith. The one area where he made all the difference, however, was in shaping the movement's nonviolent character.
This meant more than keeping his followers from resorting to violence out of frustration or rage, a remarkable achievement in itself. Many participants were prepared, as a last resort, to uncork the bloodshed Coretta King feared. Beyond adhering to the ethic of noninjury to opponents that Mahatma Gandhi called ahimsa, King pioneered the first explicitly nonviolent mass movement in U.S. history. Such nonviolent action did not appease, avoid, or stifle conflict but faced and fostered it. It did not constrain or inhibit force but deployed it creatively, with moral economy and strategic efficiency, for transformative ends. Nonviolent theorist Richard Gregg, who influenced King's thinking, called this force "moral jujitsu." Guided by Gandhi, Gregg, and other teachers, King crafted a coherent philosophy of nonviolent engagement that incorporated others' ideas about strategy, tactics, and technique into a larger ethical and spiritual framework. In Montgomery he tested the philosophy in the raw experience and uncharted terrain from which he formed it. He threw all of his freshly minted authority, stature, and prestige, all of his moral capital, into the daunting task of winning support for it from organizers, activists, and the black community as a whole. Rarely has a leader melded theory and practice so successfully as King did during the bus boycott; more so certainly than he did later in his career. For this new public philosophy, which until his death he elaborated, deepened, and rearranged to fit historical developments, he owed much to circumstance and locale, more to experienced organizers who mentored him, and more still to the black church culture that he refashioned to serve his nonviolent ideal.
The MIA leaders' initial aim was not to eliminate segregated bus seating but to make it more tolerable. In several negotiating sessions with city and bus company officials in December and January, they proposed a "first come, first served" seating arrangement that the parent bus company was using in Mobile and other southern cities. Blacks would sit from back to front, whites from front to back, preserving segregation but without prereserved sections. When it became evident that white officials would not accept so modest a reform, and when the city commissioners instead imposed what they called a "get tough" policy in January, black leaders abandoned hope of a quick settlement. They shifted course. After several discussions, the MIA Executive Board decided on January 30--in the afternoon before King's house was bombed--to file a federal lawsuit, aided by NAACP lawyers, to challenge the constitutionality of the city and state bus segregation statutes.
Next they debated whether to call off the bus boycott. Many ministers were tired and frustrated and sought a graceful exit. King was ambivalent but felt swayed by the foot soldiers' sentiment. "From my limited contact," he confided to the board, "if we went tonight and asked the people to get back on the bus" (he said this before the near riot that night) "we would be ostracized. They wouldn't get back.... I believe to the bottom of my heart that the majority of Negroes would ostracize us. They are willing to walk." Feeling strong pressure from below, the leaders voted to continue the bus boycott. They may have hoped that the disruption and media attention would penetrate the minds and hearts of federal judges holding court a few blocks away. What did King mean by "ostracize?" No doubt he worried that the aroused mass following might repudiate the leaders. He might have feared too that participants would replace the current leadership with others more militant, more responsive to the people's will, perhaps advocates of violent tactics.
Several days after MIA attorney Fred Gray filed the federal lawsuit, whose plaintiffs were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and two other black women alleging discriminatory bus treatment, Judge Eugene Carter of Montgomery Circuit Court convened the county grand jury to examine evidence that bus boycott leaders were violating an obscure 1921 Alabama statute outlawing conspiracies to disrupt lawful business. Some white opinion leaders, such as Montgomery Advertiser editor Grover Hall Jr. and even the district attorney at first, opposed prosecution as an extreme and counterproductive response. Nevertheless, on February 21 the grand jury indicted eighty-nine bus boycott leaders, including King and two dozen fellow ministers, on conspiracy charges.
The mass indictments coincided with the arrival of two seasoned radical pacifists who came to Montgomery to help out. On separate missions, Bayard Rustin and Glenn Smiley brought two closely linked traditions of nonviolent activism into the heat of battle. Rustin, a New Yorker, championed the application of Gandhian nonviolence to American race relations on the level of mass direct action. Rooted in labor movement militancy during the Depression, this nonviolent tradition was born in the March on Washington Movement conceived and led by A. Philip Randolph in the early 1940s that forced President Roosevelt to ban racial discrimination in war industry hiring and to create the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to enforce the ban. Randolph, whom some called an "American Gandhi," had founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925 and was widely considered the most influential black leader of his time. Both the 1941 campaign to bring tens of thousands of blacks to protest in Washington, which was called off when Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, and the wartime rallies and "Negro mass parliaments" in northern cities organized to fight racism, had tried to combine Gandhian satyagraha with mass direct-action tactics that CIO-affiliated unions had employed creatively during the 1930s. After the war Randolph used the threat of large-scale noncooperation with peacetime conscription to pressure President Harry Truman to issue a 1948 executive order that desegregated the armed services.
The other nonviolent tradition was developed by the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and its offshoot, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Founded in England in 1914, FOR was an international Christian-based organization that sought nonviolent solutions to war and social conflict aiming at reconciliation. Under A. J. Muste's leadership, the American branch of FOR made racial justice a high priority in the 1940s. It midwifed CORE's creation in 1942 to experiment with interracial civil disobedience against segregation in the North and Upper South. The FOR tradition was white and middle class, explicitly shaped by Gandhian practice, rigorously pacifist; it focused on small group actions, prioritized interracialism, and was anchored in the Christian faith. By contrast, Randolph's "nonviolent good-will direct action" was shaped as much by the American labor movement as by the Gandhian independence struggle. It stressed mass action, aimed at mobilizing African Americans as an autonomous force, and was working-class, democratic socialist, and secular. The two traditions nevertheless had shared values and goals and to some extent a common language, style, and ethos.
In the early weeks of the bus protest, King contacted J. Oscar Lee, head of the Department of Racial Justice of the National Council of Churches, to find out what resources might be available for training in nonviolent tactics. Lee referred him to FOR and to Bayard Rustin, executive secretary of War Resisters League (WRL), a secular and more radical pacifist group founded in 1923. Just after King's house was dynamited, a meeting took place in Randolph's New York office to decide whether Rustin should go to Montgomery. Participants included Muste, Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, and James Farmer, a CORE founder.
Rustin's experience and skill in nonviolent direct action was unequaled in American pacifist circles. Not only had he worked closely with Randolph as youth organizer of the March on Washington Movement, but he had also served for twelve years as FOR's race relations director, helped create CORE, and among other protest actions was jailed in the "Journey of Reconciliation," CORE's 1947 effort to desegregate interstate bus travel in the Upper South. During these formative years he was mentored by Muste as well as Randolph. Muste guided him more in personal, ethical, and spiritual ways, and Randolph more in strategy and ideology. Rustin's stature among pacifists was marred, however, by his involvement in the Young Communist League in the 1930s (although by now anticommunist) and by a 1953 arrest for alleged homosexual activity in Los Angeles, which forced him to resign from FOR. Despite fears that Rustin's past, if disclosed, might harm the Montgomery movement, especially with McCarthyism rampant, Randolph and Muste swallowed their own doubts and persuaded colleagues that he was worth the risk.
Excerpted from Daybreak of Freedom by Stewart Burns Copyright © 1997 by Stewart Burns.
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