In honor of Fred Gray: the meaning of Montgomery.

Author:Garrow, David J.
 
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Thank you. It is a great honor to be here and to see Attorney Fred Gray again. I told him last evening that I remember when I first met him by going to his office in Tuskegee in August of 1985, and that's thirty-one years ago, and it is great to see that he is still in such fine fettle thirty-one years later.

There are two most crucial things to understand about the meaning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The first is that in its origins the bus boycott was a women's movement. It was a women's movement even before Fred Gray first came here to Case in 1951 to start law school, because the black women in Montgomery, first coming together in 1946 to form the Women's Political Council, had been thinking about organizing a bus protest from 1949 onward. (1) It was a recurring subject among black women in Montgomery, that they were horribly mistreated on a regular basis by Montgomery City Lines bus drivers. So this was a longfestering and very well-known problem, even long before December 1, 1955. (2)

In the forty-plus years that I have been doing historical research, arguably my favorite document that I have ever seen was handed to me sometime circa 1980 by Johnny Evans, then the Montgomery County District Attorney. It was in the prosecution file that dated from when that office indicted all of the leadership of the bus boycott in early 1956, and it was a letter from Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College, and the president of the Women's Political Council, whose family was from here in Cleveland. (3) She herself had been born in Georgia, but that document was a letter from Mrs. Robinson to W. A. "Tacky" Gayle, the mayor of Montgomery, threatening a bus boycott, and the date on that letter--and everybody in this room will probably understand the connection as soon as I say that date without having to explain it--the date on that letter was May 21, 1954, four days after Brown v. Board of Education. (4) And so it is very clear how Mrs. Robinson and her compatriots in the Montgomery women's movement took inspiration from the meaning of Brown.

Now this is, as you realize, a good eighteen months before when Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1st, 1955, and when the word spread that day of her arrest, the women moved into action within hours. Mrs. Robinson and other colleagues at Alabama State spent that night very quietly, very secretly mimeographing thousands of leaflets calling for a bus boycott the following Monday. December 5th. (5) And so that protest effort was underway even before E. D. Nixon--the dean of civil rights activists in Montgomery--started telephoning around to the black ministers of Montgomery asking them to assemble and to organize a mass meeting for the evening of December 5th at Holt Street Baptist Church.

Now. when black Montgomery began that protest on December 5th. there are two important things to emphasize. Number one, they did not start out asking for desegregation of the buses. They had very modest, limited demands. If any of you know the details of Mrs. Parks's arrest, she was arrested for not surrendering her seat along with three other black riders so that one white man who had gotten on the bus could sit down. The rule in Montgomery was not only that black people had to surrender their seats for new white riders, but that black people could not sit parallel to white people. So the gravamen of so much of the tension in black Montgomery was about how black riders were forced to stand up in deference to white people.

Now, black Montgomery, since they were asking for such modest demands there at the beginning, had a perhaps naive optimism that white officials would negotiate a solution to this problem very quickly. Folks were not imagining at all that this was a protest that would go on for more than a week or so. But the great irony of those first few weeks in Montgomery is that white city officials realized just how fundamentally challenging the bus protest was in a way that the black activists themselves initially did not. If I can read one line from Mrs. Robinson here: "They feared that anything they gave us would be viewed by us as just a start. And you know, they were probably right." (6) That dawns on Dr. King, Mrs. Robinson, Ralph Abernathy, Mr. Nixon, and Mr. Rufus Lewis only when the initial negotiating sessions with the white city commission and with other white civic leaders go nowhere. Dr. King, in particular, was astonished and disappointed that white Montgomery ministers, in particular, did not respond whatsoever to the moral appeal for justice and better treatment that the black representatives were voicing to them. So as the days and weeks go forward in December of 1955, after December 5th, black Montgomery gradually realizes this is going to be a multi-week, maybe multi-month protest. White city officials for several years had been quite relatively moderate in their behavior towards black Montgomery. There were 1,500 registered black voters in Montgomery County at that time, and they mattered in city elections--indeed they made the difference in several races in 1953 and 1955.

So it came as a great shock to black Montgomery that what they thought was a culture of political accommodation had now been replaced by an incredibly hardline attitude on the part of white city officials. As I know Attorney Gray remembers all too well, throughout January of 1956, white...

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