60 years ago today on December 1st 1955, Rosa Parks unintentionally launched the Montgomery boycott against the segregation of buses in Alabama, which lasted just over a year.
Below is an excellent account of this taken from Chapter 17 of Charles Denby’s “Indignant Heart – A Black Worker’s Journal” (1978), which shows, amongst other insights, how the boycott was fairly spontaneous and independently-organised at the beginning and how the NAACP (despite their current re-written falsified history of these events) was very reluctant to get involved. Its weakness is its uncritical attitude towards Martin Luther King, though one has to realise that at that time he was fairly unknown and his leader role fairly undeveloped.
It’s a pity that the entirety of this book has not yet been published on the internet, particularly for its take on the black working class in the US up until the early 70s and how repulsive the unions were. One day I’ll scan it, even though it involves a lot of scanning.
I DECIDED TO go back to the South when so many new developments were taking place among the Blacks following the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation and the 1955 murder of the Black youth Emmet Till in Mississippi.
A lot of tension was building up, and nobody knew where or when it would break. And on December 5 [Rosa Parks got arrested on December 1st, the boycott began on the 5th – SF], 1955, there wasn’t a soul who thought that when a working woman, a seamstress named Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, that the break had come. Each concrete act took everyone by complete surprise, from the refusal by Mrs. Parks to give up her seat to a white man, to the response to her arrest and court appearance, to the mass demonstrations by the then unknown Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to the Black community running their own transportation system. It became Revolution, a word none of us ever used referring to an action defying the segregated conditions of life in the South. That mass action of revolt was the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
During the boycott, I talked with Rev. King, and he told me very firmly what had happened. In fact, I asked him how he had been able to organize the people around the boycott, because there had been so many times before that a lot worse things had happened than what Mrs. Parks went through — like Blacks being viciously beaten, and even shot and killed for refusing to move out of their seats for whites. I’d had the same kind of trouble myself.
Rev. King traced the events, and said, “You know—I can’t tell you to save my life why Mrs. Parks didn’t move back when they told her to. She says she was tired. And I believe that; but I also know that she was active in the NAACP, never successfully. This time, after they arrested her, all hell burst loose.”
He went on to say that there had been a few Black college youth on the bus from State Teacher’s College, and they found out that Mrs. Parks was going to be tried on a certain day — I think it was Wednesday.
“The students came here to the church,” Rev. King said, “because we have a mimeograph machine, and they wanted to run off some leaflets. And to tell the truth, what I believe caused the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the Montgomery Advertiser, the white daily paper.”
He went on to explain that the youth had run off a couple hundred leaflets and passed them out in the Black community. Somehow the Montgomery Advertiser got a leaflet, and reprinted it just as it had been written, so that everybody, and especially the whites, could read it that Sunday morning. They also editorialized about it, saying what the hell do these damn niggers want? What the hell are they planning? And that’s what really set the whole thing off, the talking about staying off the buses for one day to protest Mrs. Park’s arrest.
That Sunday, in practically every Black church in the city. the members were talking about the leaflet calling for Blacks not ride the bus on the day of Mrs. Park’s trial, and to be at courthouse to support her.
“And that,” Rev. King told me, “was the first I knew about it. All church members were asking their pastors what they should do, and practically every one of the pastors said they should stay off. I said the same thing to my members.”
He said about 80 percent stayed off and walked that day. After that, the youth came back. The momentum had picked up, and they had something going. They wanted to use the mimeograph machine some more, and Rev. King helped them to punctuate and write the leaflets. He kept on talking to them. they said, “Reverend, why don’t you come on and help us? And Rev. King said that was his first direct involvement in it.
He didn’t know how far it was going, and he was telling me he didn’t know how involved he was in it. But he kept on helping them, and then it was him and them.. .running around all o’ place.
Anyway, that 80 percent who boycotted the buses that day was more than anyone could believe. Rev. King thought, like everyone else in Montgomery, that it was just going to be a one-day demonstration for Mrs. Parks. But after the Blacks boycotted the buses that Wednesday, and then went back to the bus stops on Thursday, something else happened. All the bus drivers— and they were all white then — would pull up to a stop and, where there were all Blacks standing there, went on by without picking up a single one of them.
The reaction of the Blacks was, “What the hell! We walked yesterday… we can walk today.” And that, Rev. King said, was the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And they kept on walking from that day on—for over nine months—until they won.
Rosa Parks gives the state the finger
I’ve talked with Mrs. Parks many times, and she has told me she didn’t even know that plans for a bus boycott were going on, and that when she got out of jail, she actually felt she might have a a bad name and be thought of as a jailbird.
At that time, she was teaching a sewing class of about five or six young girls. She said when she got home from jail, it was the night for the girls to come to take their sewing lessons. She had set everything up as usual and was waiting for the girls.
Pretty soon, one of the girls came in, and Mrs. Parks said, “OK, we’ll start with the lesson, and maybe the others will come later”.
But the young girl looked at Mrs. Parks and said, “Oh, I didn’t come to take any sewing lesson.” And Mrs. Parks was just waiting to hear her say, “because you’ve been in jail,” or something related to that.
Mrs. Parks asked her why she had come then, and the girl told her she just wanted to drop in to say hello and see how she was, but she was going on to the mass meeting. Mrs. Parks asked what kind of mass meeting, and the girl looked kind of surpised and said it was the same meeting Mrs. Parks’ other sewing students were going to; and then said, “Don’t you know? It’s about you. About them putting you in jail.” That was the first time that Mrs. Parks learned that a bus boycott had been carried because she had been jailed. She went to the meeting with her student, and became an active member in the boycott until it ended in victory
Rev.King said that in the early stages of the boycott, there were several people in the leadership. There was no formalized leadership then as there was later, when Rev. King emerged as the leader.
After about a week of the Blacks staying off the buses, the white bus drivers would stop and urge Blacks to get on and ride. But the Blacks were either walking or using a transportation system they had set up themselves. They were also meeting regularly, as often as two or three times a week, to make and carry out their plans to continue the boycott. At this point, no demands were made for Black bus drivers. That came in later as a part of the struggle.
During the early stages of the Montgomery Bus Boycott almost all the so-called leaders opposed it, including BI Detroit Congressman Charles Diggs. I heard him speak on the radio after the boycott began, and he said that since it had already started, that he supposed it was all right, but he was opposed to this method as being the way to any solution.
Many labor leaders also opposed it; and it was only later, when they could see the Black people were winning, and after the Supreme Court knocked down segregated busing, that they got on the civil rights bandwagon. I know that when John F. Kennedy was running against Vice President Nixon for presidency of the U.S., he was going around with Rev. King nearly a year, saying how much he supported Black civil rights. Nixon was also playing the same game, and would show up at some of the mass meetings. But King was smart enough that he never once came out for Nixon, and said anything that would indicate support for him.
Walter Reuther opposed the boycott when it first started saying it was detrimental to our way of life, to the free enterprise system. He would always find a way to twist it, to make it sound like he was for civil rights. He’d say that it was wrong what whites were doing in Montgomery, but this was no way to solve the problems. The same pattern applied to all of them: they were all opposed until the mass movement showed it was not going to give in and was going to win.
The NAACP and the middle class Negro leaders were also afraid of, or were actually opposed to, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was only after nearly four months of continuous struggle, during which the national NAACP was absolutely silent, that they finally came out in support of the boycott. This organisation, which proclaimed itself to be the sole leader and representative of the fight for Black rights, dared to hint that the reason for their long silence was that at first they weren’t sure that the bus boycott was against segregation.
The unions, especially the CIO with its many Negro staff members who also sounded their notes to the world about their stand on civil rights, had deaf ears when it came to hearing the message of the colored people of Montgomery and giving them support.
Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, the Black Congressman from Harlem, N.Y., was another who waited for months before coming out openly for the boycott.
Actually, the idea of a boycott had been around Montgomery for a long time. People waiting at the bus stops were often passed by with the buses half empty in front and crowded in the rear. If Blacks could get on, they’d be shoved to the back and had to stand a lot more often then they could sit. As far back as 1947-1948. one Black bought a couple of old buses and tried to organize a service to carry Blacks to and from ball games. When Blacks would get together, they’d often talk about getting their own bus system so they wouldn’t have to put up with their treatment.
After the end of World War II, groups of Blacks all over the city began to organize their own social clubs. Before they took their own actions, the only bars they could get into were miserable dives. So the boycott was a result of a lot of things that had come together in Montgomery where Blacks had a history of doing things for themselves.
Organizing social clubs for themselves was one thing, but boycotting buses owned by white interests was something else. The city pulled out all stops to try to break the boycott. Rev. King’s home was bombed, as was the home of E.D. Nixon a porter active in the boycott. No one was arrested for the bombings, but both King and Nixon were arrested, along with 90 other Montgomery Blacks active in the boycott. The Alabama law used against them had been passed in 1921 to break a miners’ strike. During the strike, in addition to this vicious anti-labor, Birmingham mine operators had tried to lure Negroes from the farms to work as scabs. Blacks who went and came back to the farms said. “Sure, you can go up and the white man will give you a job, but this is one time when you don’t want to be on two sides. You gotta declare where you stand…and you better be with the strikers”.
Scab laws like this were now being dusted off to use against Montgomery’s Blacks. Despite these attacks and obvious violations of their rights, not a leading Black or labor leader took a stand for them. In fact, when some 90 white steelworkers in Birmingham, Alabama, sent a letter to AFL-CIO President Meany in 1956 telling him that if the union was for integration they would withdraw from it, Meany is reported to have sin turned the letter over to United Steel Worker President David McDonald without comment. By this time, practically everybody in the U.S. had taken loud and clear positions either for or against the bus boycott, but there was still not so much as a whisper from the labor leaders.
The labor unions stood exposed, because every single on them had given loud and long lip service about organizing the South. On just what basis did they propose to organize the South, the workers were asking, when they couldn’t openly come out in favor of something so clear and fundamental as what was go on in Montgomery? With the labor leaders so afraid to even speak out in support of the Montgomery boycotters, it’s Iittle wonder that the southern white supremacist leaders were concerned about the organizing rhetoric of the unions. In fact, the unions openly admitted their own membership in the viciously racist White Citizen’s Councils which were established to combat the Black freedom movement.
Here was a situation where theory could immediately be put into practice – and it revealed that the labor leaders, and many leading Blacks as well, were bankrupt on both counts. At the height of the Montgomery struggle in 1956, Reuther was making a trip to India. It was Reuther who a few years earlier at an NAACP meeting had shaken the rafters with his declarations that America could never become the great nation until it freed itself of racism which had kept it in bondage since the days of Reconstruction. Those words, however, were spoken when there was no mass movement of the Blacks striving to break that bondage. Now that Reuther was faced with the responsibility of taking a position in relation to a concrete mass action. he was silent. As one worker put it, “Reuther is going to India to sell our democracy. Why won’t he go down South and sell some to the White Citizens Councils? How can he have much interest in the workers of India and forget the struggle of the Negro people here under his nose?”
The boycott was in Montgomery, but its influence was felt everywhere. And just how vital the independent movement of Blacks for equality was can be seen in an episode in a steel plant in Birmingham in 1956. In the steel mill there were Coke machines, and there was a policy that if you put money in the machine and nothing came out, you could report it and either get a refund or a Coke from the person servicing the machines.
When this happened to a Black worker and he reported it, instead of getting his money back, the white service man began to curse and use derogatory and insulting language against him. A fight broke out between them, and the Black beat the white man.
The steel company fired the Black, and for several months the union and company played around with grievance procedures. The Coke man was back to work, but not the Black steelworker. The Blacks were in the majority in the plant and after months of this footdragging by the company and union, decided to take their own action. They boycotted the Coke machines, and the action began to spread to other plants of the same company.
The company called a meeting for the Blacks to discuss the problem. The Black workers not only told them, they gave the company a certain date to rehire the fired worker, and said if this wasn’t done, they’d spread the Black boycott of Coke throughout all of Birmingham. On the date they had set, the Black worker was back on his job. But the worker wanted full justice, and demanded that the company pay the worker for all the time he us off his job. The company paid him for every hour of lost time. Northern Blacks, especially those who left the South in the ’20s and ‘30s used to make statements and jokes about the backwardness and fear of Southern Blacks. When the boycott erupted, they were stunned, asking: “Who are these Negroes in the South and where did they come from?” They never realized that the most oppressed people of any society are the most likely to revolt against it.
I was there, in Birmingham, the day the Supreme Court ruled that segregated busing was unconstitutional. The next day I was in Montgomery and I rode a bus. I parked my car, and with my siter’s boy, got on a bus. We sat in front, and I asked the white bus driver, “How do you feel now?”
He said, “Man, I’m so happy this thing is over I don’t know what to do. I had lost practically everything I had during the boycott. I went out and got a job in construction, and that work like to have killed me. I just couldn’t do it. From now on, people can sit anywhere they want to.. .so long as they don’t sit here.” And he pointed to his own, the driver’s seat.
He was friendly and jolly about it, but it was something he had learned. I’m sure he was among the drivers who passed Blacks by when the boycott first began, but that whole struggle changed the thinking of a lot of people. There was so much joy in listening to the Blacks talking when they broke the segregation. It was a new day. It was a new dawn on the horizon for them—just to sit anywhere they wanted to on the bus. And whites now would have to stand if they didn’t get to a seat first!
I had a sister-in-law there. She was talking about being on a bus one morning and a white woman was standing over her. My sister-in-law knew that the white woman wanted so bad to tell her to get up so she could sit down.. .and my sister-in-law got the biggest kick in the world out of knowing she didn’t have to stand up for her. It was the taste of freedom, a taste that was won after nine long months of continuous meetings and of planning and setting up a new transportation system for 60,000 Blacks in Montgomery. This was done while the constant terror, bombings, harassment, intimidation, firings and practically every form of inhuman treatment you can think of were thrown against the entire Black community in those months of struggle. That’s what was so terrific – in the face of all of this, they fought and won.
Few can look out upon a calm sea and tell when a storm will rise and the tides will sweep all filth to the shore. No one can – the time, date or place for the self activities of the Blacks, as Communist and other radical parties have always tried to They all cling to the conception of plan, and think that if they not plan it for the Blacks, it cannot be done; and if a party leader does not lead the movement, that it is a useless movement.
This was, and is, also the line of the trade union leaders. These so-called leaders were completely blind to what was happening. They simply could not believe that Blacks in the South, where the whole social, political, legal and economic system was organised to keep them in bondage, could succeed in fighting against such overwhelming force. Because of this, they could not begin to understand the tremendous power and influence the bus boycott had among other Blacks in the South. This spreading courage and determination could be seen in a telegram sent by a group of Georgian Blacks to President Eisenhower early in 1957, asking him to send Vice President Nixon to the South, instead of to Europe and Asia where he was supposed to go to speak on American Democracy.