Merlene Davis: It's important to remember the lessons of the Montgomery bus boycott

Herald-Leader columnistDecember 4, 2013 

Fifty-eight years ago today, a majority of the black people living in Montgomery, Ala., decided they had had enough.

As my mother said, they were sick and tired of being sick and tired.

So, after the arrest of Rosa Parks on Dec. 1, 1955, for refusing to give her seat on a city bus to a white person, the Montgomery Improvement Association coordinated a bus boycott that started on Dec. 5 and lasted about 13 months. Martin Luther King Jr. was named president of the organization, and various groups and individuals in the North and the South gave physical and financial support to keep the boycott going.

Before the boycott, black riders had to enter the front doors of the buses, deposit their fares, disembark and then re-enter at the rear of the bus, where seats were designated for them and them only. They were forced to stand if all the black seats were taken, even though plenty of seats were vacant in the front or white section.

It was a long, hard fight, but the boycott was successful. The buses were integrated by order of the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Dec. 20, 1956, the boycott ended.

That's the story we know. But as with most things there are other details that are not as well known.

For instance, a group of mostly professional women, many of them professors at the all-black Alabama State College in Montgomery, along with social workers, nurses, and other community workers, played a major role in the boycott. In fact, they had been working through proper channels to win the desegregation of the buses and had planned for a boycott long before it occurred.

The group, Women's Political Council, was established in 1946 to increase civic involvement and to erase racist Jim Crow policies in the city.

In 1949, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson moved to Montgomery to teach English at Alabama State. One day, as she sat in the fifth row of a bus that was nearly empty, the driver put her off because she had sat in the white section.

Changing those policies became a central issue for the WPC when Robinson became president of the organization in 1950. For about five years, the group complained to the city commission, to no avail, and planned for a boycott.

Two teenage girls — Claudette Colvin, 15, and Mary Louise Smith, 18 — had been arrested in 1955 before Parks for refusing to give up their seats, but Parks was viewed by activists as the one who could withstand the scrutiny.

The WPC understood that the South gave black women more opportunities to protest than were available to more threatening black males.

The WPC and Robinson called for a one-day boycott of city buses after bailing Parks out of jail. She and another professor and two students mimeographed and distributed about 52,500 leaflets calling for the protest. After a meeting at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, other groups joined in.

About 90 percent of the blacks found other means of travel on Dec. 5. The protest was so successful, ministers and other leaders met to form the MIA and elect King as president. The group voted to continue the boycott.

MIA leaders offered an official position in the group to Robinson, but she chose not to join, fearing that it would jeopardize her professorship at Alabama State.

King, however, asked her to take charge of the weekly MIA newsletter.

She didn't escape the threats and harassment suffered by the leaders of the MIA. A police officer threw a rock in her window, and another poured acid on her car.

Still, the boycott worked. Some parts of Jim Crow had been banished, just as the women of the WPC had hoped. Robinson wrote The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: the Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, while living in Los Angeles in1987. In it she wrote, ''An oppressed but brave people, whose pride and dignity rose to the occasion, conquered fear, and faced whatever perils had to be confronted. The boycott was the most beautiful memory that all of us who participated will carry to our final resting place.''

It took a lot of patience, planning and participation for the boycott to be successful. It also took a lot of unheralded heroes.

Quitting would have been a lot easier. But where would this country be if those men and women had chosen the easy route?

We need to remember that, because there are a lot of battles yet to be won.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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