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The Thunder of Angels
The Montgomery Bus Boycott And the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow
By Donnie Williams, Wayne Greenhaw
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2006 Donnie Williams with Wayne Greenhaw
All rights reserved.
Before the Beginning
By August 1950, nothing of any great significance had happened in Montgomery, Alabama, for more than eighty years.
Back in February 1861, white politicians from all over the South had gathered in the small town. They met in the Senate chambers of the state capitol and formed the Confederate States of America. They inaugurated a president and began talking about fighting the United States. Hearing the echoes of such talk, men from all over the South poured into Montgomery, doubling the town's white population of eight thousand within several weeks. It was not long before the politicians declared war against the United States. Four years later, in April 1865, Union troops marched into Montgomery, burned thousands of bales of cotton, bivouacked for a few days, and left. Since then the city had been relatively quiet. Serving as a reminder of its history were two ominous large rocks — one on the eastern edge of town, next to the highway to Atlanta, and another on the southwestern end, next to the road to Selma. On each were the words "Cradle of the Confederacy."
In 1950 suburban streets were slow-moving, lazy places. Especially during the hot, humid, muggy afternoons of summertime. Especially in Old Cloverdale, where streets curled up and down subtly undulating hills without pattern. Unlike the rectangular grids of downtown, streets in Cloverdale followed contours of slight ridges and narrow valleys.
Sounds of children playing in a shaded side yard carried through the half-century-old subdivision. As water from a hose poured over them, the children splashed and giggled, happy to be wet, if not cool. After long naps in the late afternoon, women took lingering third baths. They worked hard to stay cool. They waited quietly for the men to come home from jobs downtown, where they tended darkened shops beneath overhead fans or worked in offices with open windows, trying to catch a breeze from the river. In a little while, Lucy Martin would call her children, who would grumpily comply with her command to come in and get ready for dinner. She would meet them at the back door with towels and guide them toward the bathroom.
The fragrant scent of cooking — fried chicken draining on the morning edition of the Montgomery Advertiser, turnip greens and snap beans in pots, potato salad under cellophane wrapping, and corn bread in the oven — wafted through the heavy air of the high-ceilinged, large, dark rooms in the oversized Tudor-style house where Mattie Johnson had worked as a maid for as long as she could remember. She was forty years old and had been a teenager when she took her mama's place. At first she had worked for Mrs. Martin's mother-in-law, but she came to this house when Lucy married Steven Martin and they moved back from Birmingham, where he had attended business college. Mattie Johnson couldn't remember the exact year she took the job, but it was a job she was glad to have. Sometimes she felt like the Martins were her second family. And sometimes she looked forward to her bus ride back home to Bogge Homa (rhymes with Oklahoma).
It had been a long day. Mattie started early, arriving by bus before seven. She made coffee for Mr. Martin and squeezed fresh orange juice for the children. She cooked eggs, bacon, biscuits, and a pot of grits. By late morning she had dusted and swept and made the beds. After Lucy Martin bathed a second time and went downtown to have lunch with her husband, a little before noon, Mattie put peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together for the kids. And after the children went next door to play with friends, Mattie sat down at the kitchen table and had a dinner of warmed-over roast from last night and a cold biscuit from breakfast. Satisfied that she didn't need to wash and iron until Monday, Mattie began preparing the evening's supper.
In the heat of the kitchen, where a floor fan stirred warm air, Mattie finished cooking shortly after Lucy Martin climbed out of her third tub bath of the day. When she heard Lucy moving about the innards of the house, Mattie slipped into the tiny bathroom beyond the laundry room. She looked at herself in the mirror. The wet half-moons beneath her arms showed the end-of-day toil that she felt deep down in her bones. Slowly she unbuttoned the blouse of her uniform and pulled it off, dropping it into a hamper. She would add it to the wash on Monday. After washing as completely as she could manage, she put on the outfit she'd worn to work: a simple skirt and a short-sleeved print top. She met Lucy Martin in the kitchen, where they said good-bye for the weekend.
Mattie walked out the back door while Lucy called to her children. The black woman, who never entered or exited through the front door of the Martin house unless she was sweeping the stoop, trudged through the hot afternoon toward the corner where she would catch her bus. She walked along the curb looking at the beauty of her surroundings. She could not help but compare it to the small wooden houses of her neighborhood of Bogge Homa. Her house, where she'd raised three children, was about one-fourth the size of the Martin place. The rooms were small. There was no underpinning. They were lucky; they got indoor plumbing just before World War II. Some of the houses in the low-lying bottom land between Cloverdale and downtown still didn't have indoor facilities. In the 1930s, when the Great Depression was strangling everybody, Mattie Johnson had been proud to have a job, even one that paid just a dollar a day.
The lawns in Old Cloverdale were mostly sloping, broad, green expanses dotted with pine and oak and dogwood and an occasional magnolia. Yards were coiffed with neatly planned circles of azaleas that bloomed bright red and pink in February, clusters of camellias that sported big round red or white flowers in March, and banks of multicolored roses that sparkled at the first hint of summer. In her little yard in Bogge Homa, Mattie kept a small bed of seasonal flowers. Like the house, it was small but well groomed. An old, gnarled crepe myrtle bush in the center of the grassless yard had never bloomed.
Mattie Johnson stood on the corner and waited in the sweltering heat. After a few minutes she saw the yellow and green city bus struggling sluggishly around the curve onto Cloverdale Road.
* * *
When bus number 2857 rolled off the General Motors Corporation assembly plant in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1948, no one cheered. There was no celebration. Politicians didn't break champagne bottles at its inauguration. This diesel-powered bus was simply Type TDH 3610-1132, patterned after the 1936-production short model, with seats for only thirty-six people. It was twenty-nine feet long, nine feet high, and eight feet wide.
In Montgomery the bus traveled the Cloverdale route. It followed a circular pattern from Court Square Fountain in the middle of downtown, where the area's original two communities — Alabama Town and New Philadelphia — had grown together at an artesian well in 1819 to form the city named for General Richard Montgomery, a native New Yorker who became a Revolutionary War hero when he was killed in the battle of Quebec. The bus moved west on Montgomery Street, south on Cleveland Avenue through a black residential area to Fairview Avenue, then east toward the country club. At Cloverdale Road it turned north through an upscale white neighborhood to Norman Bridge Road, veered onto Decatur Street, then traveled north through a poor black residential section historically known as Bogge Homa, where, years earlier, cotton-wagon drivers had camped when they brought their harvested crop into town. Then the bus climbed Centennial Hill to South Jackson Street, where more affluent black families lived. It circled the north side of the state capitol, where the government of the Confederate States of America had been organized less than one hundred years earlier. In front of the capitol steps, where Jefferson Davis was inaugurated president of the Confederacy in 1861, the bus turned westward down Goat Hill on Dexter Avenue, toward the fountain where its journey had begun. The regular driver had to shift gears so often on the circuitous Cloverdale Route that he'd complained to the company officials, who ordered that the bus's transmission be changed from straight shift to automatic.
* * *
A similar bus on the Cloverdale Route stopped with a jolt a few feet in front of Mattie Johnson. She stepped up the front steps, pulling herself toward the white driver, whom she recognized from her many trips on this line. With a cheerful greeting, Mattie dropped her dime into the coin slot next to the driver's seat.
The driver glanced at her and grumbled something unintelligible.
Then Mattie stepped back down onto the steaming pavement, went to the rear door, pulled herself onto the bus again, and settled into a seat next to an open window in the rear.
As the bus started, its gears catching, the vehicle belched diesel smoke. Fumes drifted up through the window and stung her nostrils.
She sat back and closed her eyes. At least she was off her feet. At least she was sitting on the bus. At least she was going home.
She heard the brakes of the bus and felt the vehicle slowing.
When she opened her eyes, she saw her friend Alma Franklin standing at the corner of Park Avenue and Cloverdale Road, waiting for the bus. At least she would have someone to talk to on the way home.
Alma was loaded down with clean laundry she was taking home to iron for Mrs. Ashcroft and her family. With shoulders stooped and head drooping, Alma pulled herself up into the front of the bus. She lugged the sack of clothes up the two steps. She clutched a dime between thumb and forefinger and dropped it into the slot.
Turning, Alma glimpsed her friend sitting in the rear. Then Alma carried her laundry back down the steps, moved to the rear, where the door opened with a whish, and climbed up and found a seat across the aisle from Mattie. She sat next to a window and plopped the sack of clean clothes onto the seat beside her.
After Alma mopped sweat from her high forehead, she caught Mattie's eye again and grinned broadly and shook her head. "It was a long, hard one," she muttered.
It seemed like the bus had no sooner begun its climb up a gentle knoll when its brakes caught and it wheezed to a stop again. Both women reached out automatically to grab hold of the chrome rail in front of them.
They watched as an auburn-haired girl in a fresh yellow dress and white patent-leather slippers danced up the steps, dropped her dime, and slid onto a seat directly behind the driver. To the black women, thirteen-year-old Jane Ann Thompson appeared to defy nature. Fresh and crisp, she looked as though she'd just stepped out of an icy refrigerator.
The daughter of a vice president at the First National Bank, Jane Ann glanced around and flashed a smile and spoke to the women who worked for her neighbors. She had been in and out of the Martin and Ashcroft houses all of her life. She was sure she had known Mattie and Alma all that time. Today was her day to ride the bus downtown, where she and her father would have a hot dog supper at Chris's and an ice cream soda at Liggett's Drug Store. Both places were Montgomery institutions. Chris Katechis had arrived in Montgomery thirty-some-odd years ago as a little boy from an island off Greece who could speak not a word of English. He worked for his uncle for years then built his own hot dog stand, which featured his own sauce made of chili, onions, sauerkraut, and herbs. Liggett's had an electronic banner around the exterior over its doors on Court and Montgomery streets. It flashed the latest news in the same way that the New York Times did in larger lights over Times Square in New York. On election nights, Jane Ann's father brought her to Court Square, and they sat next to the elaborate fountain watching for the latest results in Liggett's moving lights.
On this day, however, after their early evening together, her father would drive them home after twilight. It was a pleasant weekly summer routine that both father and daughter enjoyed. Jane Ann's mother used the opportunity to visit and have supper with her elderly mother before joining her husband and daughter back home after dark.
Jane Ann Thompson was not only pretty, she was a happy, secure girl. She enjoyed the simple, gracious, often glorious life of Old Cloverdale. She was not bothered with problems of growing up. An only child, her father and mother protected her. Nothing was complicated in her world. Several afternoons every week during the summertime, Mama would take her and several friends to the country club about a mile down Fairview Avenue, where they would meet other friends and school chums around the swimming pool.
In the summer of 1950, Jane Ann did not fret about the future. In another month she would start Cloverdale Junior High, and two years down the road she would be a freshman at Sidney Lanier High School with all of the other white students. Her father had already promised that some day she would be presented as a belle at the Blue-Gray Ball, an annual cotillion. She would wear a beautiful full-skirted gown with layer upon layer of petticoats, and she would carry a matching frilly parasol as she sashayed down the aisle while her father and mother's friends delighted in her joy. Her older cousin, Martha Louise, had been presented the year before last. Jane Ann had listened to her mother's description of the splendid evening and dreamed of her own time to glory under the spotlights while the orchestra played "Stars Fell on Alabama" and she would be swept around the dance floor in the arms of a handsome young gentleman.
As the bus made its way along the route, Mattie Johnson told Alma that she was looking forward to seeing her children and being with them over the weekend. Her oldest, Willie James, Jr., was home from Atlanta, where he worked as a mechanic with his uncle, her husband's younger brother. The middle boy, Jasper, was still in high school, and Mattie prayed that he would finish. Unlike his older brother, Jasper seemed to be gifted with book sense; the boy seemed to try hard, and Mattie tried to praise his efforts in the right sort of way, hoping it would take and that he would make a successful life, which she knew was hard at best for a black boy in the South. And her youngest, Tallera, named for Mattie's great-aunt, whom she had adored before the elderly woman died of a heart attack nearly twelve years ago, was the shining light in Mattie's eyes. Tallera was not only pretty, she was also sweet and gentle, and she loved her Mo'dear in the same heartfelt manner that her namesake had loved Mattie when she was a little girl.
"I got a heap of ironing ahead of me when I get home," Alma said wearily. Her children were younger than Mattie's. Like Mattie's, her husband had left some years ago, heading up north when he found life too unbearable in the South. Life might be hard down here, Alma often thought, but it's home. Like Mattie, she had been born and raised in Montgomery. Her folks all lived here, or near here. Some lived on farms in Lowndes County, about fifteen miles southwest of the Cradle of the Confederacy marker on that side of town. They were sharecroppers, and they made gardens behind their little unpainted houses. Sometimes they came into town on weekends. Sometimes she visited them down there. Alma didn't think she'd like farm life. When she was a child, she had spent summers on relatives' farms, but she was always glad to get back to Montgomery. She liked having a job and regular wages, even though the work got her down in the back and she had to tote chores home with her now and then. It wasn't as bad as having to pick cotton all day, every day, not knowing how much the boss would pay for that heavy sack that had to be dragged from row to row until it was filled to the brim. Alma remembered doing that work one summer when she was a girl. She remembered the midday sweat, the strap of the sack cutting into her shoulder, the weight growing heavier and heavier until she could hardly drag it another step. And she remembered the scant wage at the end of a long day, looking down at the meager coins in her brown palm. If it hadn't been so cheaply sad, she would have laughed at the absurdity of the situation. The money she made was barely enough to buy an RC Cola and a MoonPie and have a few cents left over to take home to her Auntie Sue Ellen. No, sir, that life was not for her; she'd take cleaning and cooking, washing and ironing. Mrs. Ashcroft was good to her, for the most part, even if Alma did take ironing home on weekends. Mrs. Ashcroft smiled at Alma in the mornings. She greeted her with nice words. She asked about the children, although Alma suspected the white woman didn't really listen to her answers.
Mattie was talking about her Tallera's upcoming birthday when the bus stopped at the corner of Cloverdale and Norman Bridge roads. Both women looked up to see a bright-faced young man with dark brown skin, wearing a neatly pressed khaki army uniform, step spryly onto the front of the bus. He dropped his dime into the slot and continued past Jane Ann down the center aisle, looking straight at the older women.
Excerpted from The Thunder of Angels by Donnie Williams, Wayne Greenhaw. Copyright © 2006 Donnie Williams with Wayne Greenhaw. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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