By Charlene Crowell
Although America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution are premised on the principles of democracy, the historical treatment of America’s citizens of color is replete with racial dichotomies.
As our nation again marks an annual tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, now is a timely moment to recall how a youthful but principled leader emerged at a time when this nation was directly challenged to honor its promises of citizenship. Today’s youth need to know and adults need to be reminded that it was at the young age of 25 that Dr. King began what would become his first successful and peaceful protest: the year-long Montgomery bus boycott.
In the fall of 1954, Dr. King began his service as pastor to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Shortly after his arrival in Montgomery, he met a ministerial colleague who would become his life-long deputy - Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
Dr. King pursued innovative ideas for his pastorate. At his first sermon at Dexter Avenue, he presented two dozen written recommendations that would reorganize the church’s committees and bank accounts. The list also included a requirement for every member of Dexter to be a registered voter. In 1954, less than five percent of Alabama Blacks were registered to vote.
With his recommendations accepted, the church moved forward with the formal installation services that took place on October 31, 1954.
A few months later, on March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin, a student at Montgomery’s Booker T. Washington High School, was arrested by city police for refusing to give up a bus seat to a White passenger. Later that year another Black female, Mary Louise Smith, was also arrested for the same offense. In neither of these instances was the Montgomery NAACP prompted to action or protest. The local chapter seemed to feel that the backgrounds of the student and Ms. Smith would not withstand scrutiny of White prosecutors. In those days in Alabama, the first 10 seats on Montgomery buses were always reserved for Whites. If the White section filled up, the colored section was made smaller.
But, on Thursday evening, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a local seamstress and secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, decided to ride home on the Cleveland Avenue bus from her job at a downtown Montgomery department store. When the white section filled up, the bus driver asked four Blacks to move. Three other Black passengers complied. Rosa Parks refused, and the driver called the police.
12 years earlier, Parks was evicted by the same driver on another bus.
Recalling the events of that day, Mrs. Parks said, "I didn’t consider myself breaking any segregation laws. I just felt resigned to give what I could to protest against the way I was being treated." The one phone call she was allowed from jail led to the response of another local NAACP official, E.D. Nixon. A Pullman porter by trade, Nixon aided the release of Mrs. Parks on a $100 bond. Her trial was set for December 5th.
The following day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. received a phone call from Nixon. As he recounted the events of the previous evening, Nixon told Dr. King, "We have taken this thing too long already. We got to boycott the busses, make it clear to the white folks that we ain’t taking this type of treatment any longer." Dr. King agreed and offered Dexter Avenue Baptist Church as a meeting place for community leaders. Almost 50 ministers and civic leaders attended the meeting. They agreed that the bus boycott would begin on the following Monday, December 5th, the same day as Mrs. Parks’ trial. Some 52,000 flyers were printed and distributed to announce the boycott.
The now-famous Montgomery boycott actually borrowed some of its strategy from an earlier, but little-known, effort. In 1953, Rev. T.J. Jemison, then secretary of the National Baptist Convention, organized a bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That effort lasted only two weeks.
On December 5, 1955, Dr. King, the newly-appointed president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), delivered his first speech on the bus boycott. A crowd of thousands spilled out into the streets. Outdoor loudspeakers were set up to enable all in attendance to hear the address.
Dr. King’s spell-binding oratory and Baptist cadence captured the spirit of an angry Montgomery Black community. "There comes a time my friends, when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July, and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November."
"I want it to be known" King continued, "that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination - to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong. We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong - the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong - God Almighty is wrong! And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream!"
A series of negotiating sessions began in early December. White negotiators insisted on racially segregated seating and active negotiations stalled.
With the Christmas shopping season fast approaching, Dr. king proposed that instead of gift shopping, Montgomery Negroes should rally to the original meaning of the season and not shop at all. Monies set aside for gifts was proposed to be divided three ways among savings account, charity donations, and gifts to the MIA.
By January 1956, Montgomery’s bus company advised city commissioners that the loss of revenues had led to the likelihood of bankruptcy. In reaction, a fare hike was approved.
That same month, the city’s daily paper, the Montgomery Advertiser began running news reports on the bus boycott. A January 19th report appeared with the headline, "Rev. King is Boycott Boss."
For more than a year, Montgomery’s 30,000 Black residents walked, hitchhiked and used every means of transportation except the city buses.
On February 1, 1956, the MIA filed a lawsuit in federal district court. Four months later, the federal court declared that segregated bus seating was unconstitutional. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling. On December 20, 1956, the order to integrate buses was served on Montgomery’s officials.
In the year of the boycott, the transit company reportedly lost $250,000 in revenues. Retail merchants estimated their losses to be in the millions.
The boycott won Dr. King as much appreciation as it did resentment. In a December 1954 letter to his son, Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. prophetically advised, "You see, young man, you are becoming very popular. As I told you, you must be very much in prayer. Persons like you are the ones the devil turns all of his forces loose to destroy."