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Living In The Shadows Of A LegendUnsung Heroes and 'Sheroes' Who Marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Deric A. Gilliard
A Gilliard Communications PublicationCopyright © 2002 Gilliard Communications
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJohn Thomas
Drove workers during Montgomery bus boycott
Born: April 30, 1908, Montgomery, Alabama Died: December 16, 2001, Montgomery, Alabama
Only four days after the historic May 17, 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education ruling that said segregated schools were "inherently unequal," Jo Ann Robinson, an outspoken activist and head of the Women's Political Council of Montgomery; wrote a letter to the mayor asking for equal treatment for Negroes on the city's buses. Despite comprising 75 percent of the city's bus riders, blacks riders were forced to enter the bus from the front, pay the driver, then re-enter the bus from the back, where they were only allowed to sit in seats designated for "colored" riders. In fact, if the "white only" section was full, Negro riders were then required to give up their seats to whites. Many had been arrested for refusing to give up their seats. One rider, Hilliard Brooks, 22, was shot and killed by Montgomery police following an argument with a bus driver over his right to sit anywhere he chose in 1952.
Nearly eight years later, despite a successful bus boycott that won international acclaim for its broad-based support from the Negro community and catapulted a young minister named Martin Luther King, Jr., into national prominence, Montgomery city, officials remained steadfast in their resolve not to change. In fact, in January of 1962, officials threatened to remove all seats and water fountains from the airline terminal and put padlocks on the restrooms in defiance of a court ruling that ordered the facilities be integrated. Only strong opposition from the media, including the segregationist press, caused them to back down.
* * *
Black citizens in Montgomery lived in a constant state of fear and apprehension in those days. But one particular spring day in 1956, remembered John Thomas, one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement and still sharp at the ripe old age of 91, fear gripped him like a vise and wouldn't let go.
The incident took place, he recalls, during the height of the historic Montgomery bus boycott that began December 5, 1955-four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Instead of shuttling black riders back and forth to work who refused to ride on the back of the segregated buses as he did every single work day, rain or shine, sick or tired, this morning John Thomas was afraid, but he couldn't put his finger on exactly why.
"When I was going down Fairview (St.) one day, load of folk in my car, (I) saw police and I knew-I felt-they were going to put me in jail or beat me," said Thomas, who routinely drove one car in the morning transporting black residents to jobs, then a different one in the evenings. Concerned that authorities would arrest him-or worse-Thomas told them (riders) to "get out, I got to go to work. Get out!" I didn't get afraid. I was scared. The other times were dangerous, but one time was worse than all the rest."
The next day, however, was "business as usual" for Thomas, one of a cavalcade of enlistees in the crew that transported blacks in Montgomery participating in the historic 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott back and forth to work because they refused to ride the bus as second-class citizens. Drivers were prohibited from accepting money from the riders, or they'd risk being thrown in jail. Still, he resumed his daily practice of transporting black riders, many of whom were domestics and day laborers, in both the morning and the evening so that they could continue to make a living while the city's black citizens staunchly refused to sit at the back of the bus, or give up their seats to whites.
On another occasion, shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr., had moved to Montgomery, Thomas, a part-time barber, remembers getting a call at the barbershop he worked at that the home of Martin King had just been bombed. Only blocks away, Thomas-who says he doesn't remember who called him-sprinted to the house to find that a bomb had ripped through the front section. Fortunately Mrs. Coretta Scott King, who came to the door still in her robe, and her baby daughter, Yolanda, were unharmed. One of the first of what soon became a concerned and angry crowd to arrive on that January 30, 1956, Thomas and the rest of the agitated citizens waited to see what Dr. King, who soon arrived from a mass meeting he was speaking at across town, had to say.
Dr. King, who had been speaking at First Baptist Church on Ripley Street that evening, was assured that they were okay-shaken, but uninjured. King addressed the murmuring crowd, many of whom were prepared to retaliate.
"He never raised his voice," said Thomas, shaking his head in amazement. "He said 'me, my wife and my daughter are not hurt. We're going to win this fight.'"
"If it had been you or I, we'd be cussing and ready to fight. I said to myself, this has to be the biggest fool in the world," recalls Thomas. "But he won that battle, you see." Thomas, who sang in the choir at Maggie Street Baptist Church, was also at First Street Baptist Church the night a rag tag army of federal troops tried to keep the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and white supremacists under control while King and much of the civil rights leadership addressed a packed crowd inside, on May 22, 1961.
"Reverend Orlando Patterson (choir director) said he wanted us to sing and I said, 'Oh, Lord!' Thomas remembers telling Rev. Ralph Abernathy that windows were being broken out of every out-of-state car as tension rose inside as tear gas seeped into the church and federal marshals battled the agitators outside.
"We attempted to go out the back door, but they wouldn't let us," said Thomas. Finally, in the early morning hours, after extensive negotiations between U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Alabama Governor John Patterson, Patterson finally declared marshal law. Soon the Alabama National Guard and state police showed up to protect the church full of men, women and children. Eventually, after 4 a.m. that next morning, they were free to go home.
"How I know?" asks Thomas, declared by some to be Montgomery's oldest living citizen in 2000. "Cause I was there."
On another occasion, in the midst of the bus boycott, King and the leadership needed to have some food brought to them after staffing an outdoor, makeshift headquarters all day.
"They said, 'we don't have anything to eat. See that tree up there? We're going to fall out.' I had a car full of food. Two seconds after I brought it out, it was gone. I carried them the first food they ate (that day)."
Treasurer of the Montgomery Improvement Association-the group first led by Dr. King to organize the historic bus boycott-since 1974, Thomas said the group would meet every month and pass the hat. Meeting in a different church every night, they'd collect money to be used by the striking workers for gas, food, or whatever else was needed at the time to keep the boycott going. And finally, 381 days after it began, victory was won.
Thomas has survived six pastors at Maggie Street Baptist Church, a small, brick edifice a block from his home. He still served as a faithful deacon well into his nineties.
Thomas was on the scene of another historic moment in the Alabama movement. A native of Montgomery, Thomas was charged with picking up Dr. Ralph Bunche and taking him to the Ambassador Hotel. Bunche, a United Nations ambassador, was one of many dignitaries flying into Montgomery for the grand, triumphant arrival of the marchers who had trekked 54 miles over five days from Selma. As fate would have it, Bunche was delayed, and Thomas' assignment was aborted. Instead-not wanting to be left out-Thomas joined the parade of drivers following King's historic "How Long?" speech on the steps of the state capitol, who began ferrying the marchers back to Selma. It was that night, for the first time, amidst the celebration and the revelry, Thomas recalls, that he met a 39-year-old white housewife from Detroit named Viola Liuzzo.
"I saw her before going to Selma," said Thomas, who remembers taking a packed car full of marchers back to Selma. "She was in her car and I was in my '42 Chevy. Me and her carrying a load to Selma. I was in front and she was behind."
Tragically, he would never see her again. Liuzzo was gunned down by white racists as she and a black man, Leroy Moton, traveled back to Montgomery on Highway 80. Shot in the head, she died instantly. A fenced memorial erected during the 1990s by the SCLC/W.O.M.E.N. at the 54-mile mark commemorates the site.
"I said, 'Lord, why didn't I get killed, too?," agonized Thomas, after he reached home and was safely in his own bed. "God wasn't ready for me yet. Things were rough in those days."
A bellhop, a contractor's helper, then a contractor, and even a barber during the 1950s and '60s, Thomas credits King with integrating the downtown Oak Park neighborhood and leading the push that resulted in raising salaries of the working poor. Entering a new millennium, the man who, miraculously, was never sent to jail despite his ongoing, frontline commitment to the movement, says Montgomery has changed mightily.
"Where the police department was, there is now a park," said Thomas, still steady, although slowed. "You can hardly tell the difference from where a black man stays and where a white man stays. Know what makes the difference? Your money. In the old days, you knew where black folk stayed and where white folk stayed. God been good to us."
A constant refrain from Thomas, a wiry, spectacled dark-skinned man with symbols of Jesus all through his house, Thomas says he's still amazed that, throughout the civil rights movement, he was never arrested or even struck by a man, white or black.
"Only one way I went through it-with the help of God," he said.
In the audience at Ninth Street Baptist when he says King preached his last message in Montgomery, Thomas, whose wife of 65 years died in 1999, still sees King as a modern day prophet.
"That Martin Luther King was a man," he proclaimed, shaking his head. "He never talked to nobody about me and he never talked to me about nobody. The only one who could ever compete with him is him yonder (Jesus Christi. That Martin Luther King was a man. Rode around in an old model Pontiac automobile. He could have had a new suit and a brand new car. But he didn't have change for a quarter. But anything he said he was going to do, he did it. I never saw him raise his voice at anybody. King was a God sent man. But it wasn't none of King. It was somethin' in him."
For all Thomas has contributed, all he's seen, and all he's done, one thing sticks out as his proudest moment.
"I'm most proud of when I went to Atlanta for King's funeral and came back and said 'Lord, thank you for the blessing,'" said Thomas, who said he couldn't help but weep over his fallen friend and leader. "You know what you thankful for? Something you get through. He was a God sent man and God sent him for a reason. Every day of my life I think about him. And I try to be like him. I try to help somebody."
Excerpted from Living In The Shadows Of A Legend by Deric A. Gilliard Copyright © 2002 by Gilliard Communications. Excerpted by permission.
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