Sixty-Four Years After the Montgomery Bus Boycott The City Leads The Way Again
When the news broke that Montgomery, Alabama, my birthplace, had elected its first black mayor and that he had received two-thirds of the vote, a wave of stunned incredulity swept over me. With this nation currently in a seemingly catatonic state of a racialized Trump infestation, I did not believe this was possible. Having been raised partly in Montgomery, the so-called Cradle of the Confederacy, and having spent many of my formative years there during the Civil Rights Movement, I was certain that such an election would not occur in my lifetime. But as I watched and listened to the refreshing words of the young Mayor-elect, Steven Reed, and the jubilant, adoring crowds of Montgomery citizens, I found myself joining in the joyful jubilation and wonderment of it all. And during his media coverage in the days following the election, I found this young man’s bold statement that “Montgomery’s future is better than its past” to be truly refreshing.
“This election was never about me…This election was never just about my ideas. It was about all the hopes and dreams that we have as individuals and collectively in the city.” ~ Mayor-elect, Steven Reed
Not since the 1960 election when John F. Kennedy sent out a clear and robust clarion call to “a new generation of Americans” introducing his “New Frontier”, or Barack Obama’s stirring “Yes We Can” mantra, had I seen a young leader exhibiting so much hope, enthusiasm and promise. Mayor-elect, Steven Reed, with his focus clearly on bringing the changes Montgomery needs and inspiring the younger generation, has planted himself squarely in the very heart of the city that launched a historical social movement that changed this nation’s history. And as Montgomery showed the world in 1955, this is how it’s done.
Sixty-four years ago, in 20th Century America, black people in Southern states lived under legalized racial terrorism. I was one of them. Living under the foreboding and ominous shadow of what were then known as “Jim Crow” laws. Actual laws that allowed white supremacy to reign supreme and forced “colored people/Negroes” to endure constant marginalization and oppression — the continuing legacy of Slavery, this country’s greatest shame.
But this nation’s self-inflicted wound is not of our making. The mere knowledge that our African ancestors were kidnapped, shackled, and herded as human cargo en route to a lifetime of bondage and servitude is a fact that informs the very essence of our beings. Most African-Americans of a certain age have experienced racism on some level at some point in their lives. Those of us over 40 who share the additional common bond of being born South of the Mason-Dixon line have felt the sting of white hatred even as children. From my own life experience in Montgomery, I feel that I can speak with some authority on the subject of racism and its impact, not only during my formative years but for much of my adult life as well. For even though my family later joined in the Great Migration and moved North to Detroit, we spent summer vacations in Montgomery and those times and images have remained embedded in me.
Like most people, I was born into a loving family with two parents and a host of other relatives who doted on me and attended to my every need. As a little girl, I was sheltered from the evil forces just outside of the verdant enclave that was our home on the outskirts of Montgomery. However, outside of the restricted and narrow landscape that my early childhood encompassed, I saw that black people were disrespected, marginalized and treated as inferior.
Segregation was the law of the land and for Negroes the ominous shadow of Jim Crow was omnipresent.
But even in the face of unrelenting racial oppression my four siblings and I were blessed with loving but demanding parents who protected us and embedded in us a sense of responsibility and strident goals of self-reliance and self-discipline. We were constantly assured that we were just as good, and certainly not less than any other human being of God’s creation and that racial prejudice was simply traditional ignorance.
This long tradition resulted in a racial caste system that spawned unspeakably violent acts against black people, and in one instance spurred the brutal torture and murder of a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till in the town of Money, Mississippi on August 28, 1955.
When the story exploded in national headlines it caused immediate nationwide outrage. The news coverage in print, television, and radio brought ugly images into homes across the country, making average citizens eye-witnesses to crimes against humanity, and shaming America before the world. In Southern states, however, these ongoing injustices resulted in black people becoming fed up, thereby galvanizing communities into action and creating the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. Less than four months after the horror of the Emmett Till murder, the arrest of Mrs. Rosa Parks on board a Montgomery city bus presented the ideal case with which to press forward in challenging the scourge of segregation, beginning with the city’s segregated bus lines.
Mrs. Parks and my mother were good friends for many years and had been classmates at Miss White’s School for Girls when they were girls. Mrs. Parks was an expert and sought-after seamstress in the high fashion- women’s couture area of the Montgomery Fair department store in downtown Montgomery, where she did alterations. However, in those days, in this same department where she was employed, Negroes were not allowed entry into fitting rooms to try on clothing.
Much has been written about what happened on that Cleveland Avenue bus that evening when she was making her way home from work. And over the years, Mrs. Parks herself has dismissed the “quiet seamstress” characterization applied to her. But let it suffice to say that the black citizens of Montgomery had had enough of the inhumane treatment they had long endured on city busses, and the city-wide mood dictated that it was time to act. The news of Mrs. Parks’ arrest was a shock to everyone, but it was also the spark that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.
Although several other women had been arrested previously for refusing to surrender their seats to white passengers, by the time of Mrs. Parks’ encounter with the bus driver, the time was ripe to take action and she presented as the perfect heroine. Immediately, two local Negro organizations, the (WPC) Women’s Political Council and the (MIA) Montgomery Improvement Association joined forces and organized a strategy with which to move forward in planning a boycott of the city’s buses. The Black citizens of Montgomery united full force, mounting a 13-month, city-wide mass protest that crippled one of the previous Jim Crow strongholds, and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling segregation on public buses unconstitutional. National media coverage brought Mrs. Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. to the world stage, and focused international attention on the activities in Montgomery.
For over a year, black Montgomery stood tall, embraced the cause and walked and carpooled as half-empty city buses limped along, devoid of black presence. I have always been tremendously proud of the fact that during extremely turbulent and dangerous times, the black citizenry of my home town, many of them members of my family, courageously took action that actually changed the course of history. By galvanizing and standing tall in the face of unrelenting racial animus and diversity, they faced down age-old oppression and demanded their rights. Subsequently, the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful and, achieved all of their demands.
Sixty-four years ago the people of Montgomery, Alabama stood together and dismantled Jim Crow with far fewer resources than are available to us today. And under the fresh and promising leadership of a new mayor as well as a new generation of Montgomery citizens, a great deal more can be accomplished.
Inspiration from those who came before us
“No…The only tired I was was tired of giving in…I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” ~ Mrs. Rosa Parks
“Let us fight passionately and unrelentingly for the goals of justice and peace…But let’s be sure that our hands are clean in the struggle. Let us not fight with violence and falsehoods and hate and malice…But always fight with love so that when the day comes when the walls of segregation come tumbling down in Montgomery, we can live side by side with people as their brothers and sisters.” ~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
December 5, 1955: On a cold and rainy Monday morning, the Negro citizens of Montgomery rose with pride and dignity and determination and began what would become their historic walk to freedom.
For 361 days the Negro citizens of Montgomery were on the front lines of one of the greatest social movements of all time that would change the course of this nation’s history.
…and they sat stoically, and they galvanized, and they walked, and they marched, and they bled, and they died for the freedoms we are enjoying today.
“We took on the mightiest nation in this world…in the history of the planet…and we won. We brought it to its knees. Not with guns, not with violence, not with being nasty. We won with the spirit of non-violence. Because a handful of humble people were willing to die.” ~ Dick Gregory
And the proud and courageous citizens of Montgomery led the way.