I found a thing some weeks ago that told me the bus boycott was started on the principles of a short boycott in 1953.
That 1953 bus boycott was protesting an ordinance that "stated that black people could fill up the bus from the back to the front, and white people could fill the bus from front to back based on a first-come, first-served basis." After four days, the law was changed: "the first two seats on any bus were reserved for white people, and the last two seats on the bus for black people. People of any color could sit in between."
But it's not as easy as that.
(Some of the skeleton of this information is from here. If you know me, you know I love throwing far more information at you than I want to have in the condensed version here because I am taking the briefest of bits from book-length material. You, in turn, get to learn as your heart guides you.)
Before seamstress Rosa Parks (page five has that heart-punchingly sad picture of Emmitt Till), who was a trained Highlander Folk School activist and NAACP secretary, was Claudette Colvin, who sat as a pregnant unmarried teenager on the bus, albeit with direction from Rosa Parks courtesy of a "youth council meeting." (And two pages after that is a Clara Luper sighting.)
Before either of them, in a different state, was the Rev. T.J. Jemison, who helped organize the four-day boycott in Baton Rouge, La. The drivers were pretty important too, and more on their concept later.
Before 1953, a teacher in Alabama dared to sit. Click there and you see something intriguing:
was perhaps the individual most instrumental in planning and publicizing the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, proposing the idea more than a year before it was implemented.The planning of the boycott is nothing short of a marvel, given some things I'm going to throw at you here, since I can and I think you'll like it, after a fashion. But first, more befores.
Before Jo Ann Robinson in 1949 was Irene Morgan, who kicked a guy in the balls when he ... well:
About a half-hour into the trip, the bus stopped, and a white couple boarded. When the driver ordered Mrs. Kirkaldy, then known as Irene Morgan, and her seatmate to give up their seats, Mrs. Kirkaldy refused. She also told the young woman to stay put.Maybe I'm in the minority here, but if you as a white law enforcement officer have to verbally threaten to use a nightstick against a 20something-year-old black woman -- in legal circles, among the least important anythings anywhere in the 1940s -- you actually don't want her to grab it from you and make that kick seem like a pre-Loving love tap.
"I can't see how anybody in the same circumstance could do otherwise," Mrs. Kirkaldy told Washington Post reporter Carol Morello in 2000. "I didn't do anything wrong. I'd paid for my seat. I was sitting where I was supposed to."
The Greyhound bus driver, however, thought otherwise. He drove to the jail in Saluda, Va., in Middlesex County, where a sheriff's deputy boarded the bus and gave Mrs. Kirkaldy a warrant for her arrest.
In a daring and dangerous move, she tore up the warrant and threw it out the window. The deputy then grabbed her arm and tried to yank her off the bus. She didn't go peacefully.
"He touched me," she recounted to The Post. "That's when I kicked him in a very bad place. He hobbled off, and another one came on. He was trying to put his hands on me to get me off. I was going to bite him, but he was dirty, so I clawed him instead. I ripped his shirt. We were both pulling at each other. He said he'd use his nightstick. I said, 'We'll whip each other.' "
So anyway, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated interstate travel was unconstitutional (hilarious headline bottom-right: "Soviet Chides Democracies on Jim Crow"), to which the South promptly said:
You have made your decision. Now we will ignore it.Between, oh, 1876 and 1944, many other things happened. Books have been written on the crucial role black and white labor groups played in supporting and/or fighting segregation. I want to instead point you to ... before these laws were entrenched.
Before these laws were entrenched and the white movement was in the habit of lynching black people for, y'know, being uppity, desegregation movements were taking place in public transit in 1867 all over the South. And some lines later, we have this bit of amazing:
Segregationists, who worried how restrictive laws might be perceived outside of the South, were emboldened by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1899 decision in Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas R.R. v. Mississippi....
I'm ... going to move on from the phenomenal WHAT? of segregationists worried about NORTHERN PERCEPTION and focus on the court case. Since that decision is in approximately nobody's grade or high school history text, let's do a bit of digging. First, it's 1890, not 1899, which is interesting because Plessy is 1896. Louisville found that:
The statute of the State of Mississippi of March 2, 1888, requiring all railroads carrying passengers in that state (other than street railroads) to provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races, having been construed by the supreme court of the state to apply solely to commerce within the state, does no violation to the commerce clause of the Constitution of the United States.Commerce Clause in 1890, Equal Protection in 1896. And in this meandering walk through history, I should and thus will note that Justice John Marshall Harlan was the lone dissenting vote in those two cases and in a third, which held that:
The Fourteenth Amendment restrains only state action. And the fifth section of the Amendment empowers Congress only to enforce the prohibition on state action. The amendment did not authorize national legislation on subjects which are within the domain of the state. Private acts of racial discrimination were simply private wrongs that the national government was powerless to correct.And before that, way back in 1854, was Elizabeth Jennings, a teacher -- what is it with teachers? Jo Ann Robinson, too -- who was late to church.
Jennings' lawyer was Chester Arthur, better known (later) as President Chester A. Arthur:
Arthur, who would go on to become president upon the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, was at the time a beginner in his 20's only recently admitted to the bar. He nevertheless won the case, against the Third Avenue Railway Company; a judge ruled that "colored persons if sober, well behaved, and free from disease" could not be excluded from public conveyances "by any rules of the Company, nor by force or violence," according to newspaper reports. "Our readers will rejoice with us" in the "righteous verdict," remarked Frederick Douglass' Paper.
But in the 1870s and after, the courts and white society were (despite that claim of perception worry) quickly finding ways to restrict black rights and avenues for redress. Race-baiting increased and power decreased everywhere. And blacks did protest these encroachments. They did boycott. But it wasn't enough because they weren't enough. More black urban workers helped with the economic toll in the 1950s, but in the 1910s, your average black employee was working on a farm. You don't so much need to take a public bus to get to the farm you live on.
From legally sound segregation basically everywhere -- even the Kentucky Derby, a not-at-all-famous employer of black jockeys back in the day, went white because black success at anything had to be shot dead quickly -- we got the KKK, white primaries, lynchings, race-based pay and any number of other things I really don't feel like looking up because ow, my heart.
So about that not-remotely spontaneous bus boycott, organized by trained activists from Myles Horton's school and guided by the boycott success in Baton Rouge. But first, Jo Ann Robinson warned Montgomery's mayor that trouble was coming:
Mayor Gayle, three quarters of the riders of these public conveyances are Negroes. ... If Negroes did not patronize them they could not possible operate. ... There has been talk from 25 or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses.Yeah ... funny thing about being black in 1955 is not many white mayors took you seriously.
This is for Monday, December 5, 1955. 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. . . . This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand behind empty seats. If you do not do something to stop those arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter or your mother.That letter, under your door, at your church. In your pastor's sermon. 52,500 copies, plus word of mouth. Instructions: Don't ride the bus Monday.
This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. . . . If you work, take a cab or walk. But please, children and grownups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off of all buses, Monday.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to 90 years of freedom in name only. Actually, several funny things happened, and among them were two men's words:
What's the matter with you people? Here you have been living off the sweat of these washerwomen all these years and you have never done anything for them. Now you have a chance to pay them back, and you're too damn scared to stand on your feet and be counted! The time has come when you men is going to have to learn to be grown men or scared boys.And later, from a black minister who'd gotten his doctorate six months ago to the day:
There comes a time when people get tired. We are here this evening to say to those who have mistreated us so long that we are tired—tired of being segregated and humiliated, tired of being kicked about by the brutal feet of oppression. . . . We had no alternative but to protest.Having shown they could successfully boycott for four days, that newly doctorate-bearing Martin Luther King Jr. and other boycott leaders met with the bus company, whose representatives rejected a suggested incremental desegregation plan. That bad news plus a city move to prevent black cabs from helping with cheap transportation meant everyone who wanted to get to work needed a new plan for transportation.
If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity . . . when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people – a black people – who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.”
To pay bills.
In December, home of cold and Christmas.
But among the funny things that happened was some of the boycott members had fought in the Korean War. And they knew all about motor pools:
Then we immediately got on the job and organized a volunteer car pool. And almost overnight over three hundred cars were out on the streets of Montgomery.
... the success of this transportation system was made possible by the Korean War GI's, who used their experience in the army's "motor pools" specifically and the army generally, to perform the maintenance of the automobiles and become the hard core of the drivers that sustained this transportation system for a year. It was also widely known, in Montgomery, that these men also had the ability and the willingness to defend themselves if the KKK attacked the transportation system. Due to the wide knowledge of this fact, and the world attention that the Boycott had achieved, the racists were unable to disrupt the car pool, that "worked with military precision."That pesky Army service thing the segregationists didn't want to happen was crucial in maintaining a public transportation boycott among people who didn't have their own cars.
And among the other funny things that happened was white people started to ask for an end to the boycott or to subvert it.
Wait what? White Citizens' Council membership had doubled in the first month of the boycott.
White business profits had not. Black people shopped. And since getting a loan for a business as a black person was just this side of "don't even bother" -- "Banks weren't even issuing mortgages to African Americans in the 1950s, let alone making business loans." -- black people were shopping at white-owned businesses.
Unless they were all home because the boycott meant that ride home wasn't going to wait up for some shopping. Transportation was such an concern that some black domestic workers even got paid rides from their employers -- white families.
And among the other funny things that happened was the court system, where lawyers like Thurgood Marshall had been working to chip away at separate but equal for decades, had two years before declared that separate but equal in schools was unconstitutional.
Fittingly, the chief justice at the time was the governor of California when a Mexican-based separate but equal case -- eight years before -- was decided for the Mexican kids (though only because the law didn't specifically discriminate against Mexicans). So many twists in this story.
A planned daylong boycott to demonstrate black community power became the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and when you graduate to capital letters, you've done something.
Among the somethings was a court case. The black community -- that's national, not Montgomery -- had won.
On November 13, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on Montgomery's buses was unconstitutional. This ruling established that any bus rider could take whatever seat was available. There could no longer be any “white” and “black” sections on the bus. On December 20, 1956, the Montgomery police chief received the official federal decree prohibiting segregation on public transportation. He informed his officers that desegregation of buses would begin immediately. On December 21, 1956, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended, 381 days after it had begun, and the African American residents of Montgomery returned to the buses. Rosa Parks was one of the first to ride the buses. Time magazine reported that “she gazed peacefully out a bus window from a seat of her own choosing.” (Dec. 31,1956,10)Time Magazine hasn't made that whole page available to all, but we can see here part of an anecdote that feels an awful lot like a joke we make about marriage equality:
They'll find that all they've won in their year of praying and boycotting is the same lousy service I've been getting every day.
The history is incomplete. You know it and I know it.
For all the names I have brought out, for all the sources and their closer-to-completion tapestry, ... first off, I don't believe that between 1902 and 1944, no masses of black people boycotted public transit over segregation. Martin Luther King Sr. doing it on his own is not a mass boycott, however honorable it is anyway. This has some promise (though I think the notion that the boycott "failed to win the objectives sought by the protesters" seems a little off, given that the original objective was to show the community could boycott at all), and this more so.
Part of the reason the boycotts were not pronounced between 1902 and 1944 is that lynchings ... are bad. Scary. Deathly scary, even. And if you are among the more than 50 percent of blacks whose living consists of crops, you don't have the time or safety to boycott anything on account of fire kills crops and shacks and families. So do ropes.
But the lynchings and the laws and the everything else failed ... eventually. And while we almost 60 years later still have whites-only clubs, whites-only student government positions and whites-only prom, Franklin McCain ran out of lunch counters to desegregate.
Give me a name. Someone not in one of the roughly three dozen documents I've linked here.
Give me another square of the tapestry. What are we missing?