Attorney Fred Gray in Court
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Edgar D. Nixon – Mug Shot
Parks, Nixon & Gray
Â Professor Jo Ann Robinson
Johnnie R.D. Carr, President of MIA
“The Montgomery Bus Boycott – They Walked to Freedom”
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama so that a white person could sit, the Montgomery Advertiser ran the following article the next day; it was headlined: NEGRO JAILED HERE FOR ‘OVERLOOKING’ BUS SEGREGATION. A Montgomery Negro woman was arrested by city police last night for ignoring a bus driver who directed her to sit in the rear of the bus.
The woman, Rosa Parks, 634 Cleveland Ave., was later released under $100 bond.
That act of defiance seemed routine and insignificant at the time but it was like “a falling leaf that started an avalanche.” It set into motion a pivotal movement in the civil rights history of the 20th century in America, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and started the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).
It propelled Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks into national and, later on, international prominence. (Dr. King would eventually earn the Nobel Prize and Parks would become known as the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”)
The Black clergy and community leaders in Montgomery, led by Edgar D. Nixon, the head of the state’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the local NAACP, and Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council planned for a one-day boycott of all city buses. About 90 percent of the Black community boycotted the public bus system that day.
(It was Nixon who had bailed out Parks after she was arrested and would later on persuade her to allow the incident to be a basis to challenge Montgomery bus segregation laws.)
Because it was a great success, the MIA was established to continue and maintain the boycott and King was elected to be its chairman. Though their actions were triggered by the bus incident, they decided to use the momentum to improve the general tone of race relations in Montgomery and beyond, and they drafted demands of the boycott. The demands consisted of basic human courtesies, which included treatment by bus drivers. Part of MIA strategy was also the need to file a federal lawsuit to challenge Montgomery and the Alabama bus segregation laws as unconstitutional.
Despite these events occurring the year following “Brown v Board of Education,” the MIA was willing to compromise and not to push too far, too fast. Rather than full and complete desegregation throughout the community, they were willing to accept separate if it was indeed equal. It did not work and the boycott continued. Over the next year, under the auspices of the MIA, Blacks held weekly meetings, organized car pools and adamantly refused to use the public buses as long as the bus company (the city) continued its discriminatory policies relative to public buses.
The significance of Parks’ arrest, the establishing of the MIA and the subsequent boycott is that MIA maintained its actions all the way. Other Black women had been arrested with no impact up to that point. One example was a 15-year old Black girl, Claudette Colvin, who had been arrested nine months prior to the Parks incident. What started as a one-day act of defiance (boycott) eventually lasted 381 days. MIA and Montgomery’s Black residents maintained their defiance despite fierce political opposition, police harassment and personal threats. Bus rider- ship fell and the bus company headed towards financial ruin.
Two months after Parks’ arrest, Colvin’s arrest – and several other Black women who had been similarly arrested – was revisited by some Black attorneys. That formed the basis of a federal class action discrimination suit especially since prior filings in state court “fell on deaf ears.” Using Aurelia Browder (a Montgomery homemaker, one of the women who had been arrested) as the named plaintiff, attorney Fred Gray filed a federal case, Browder vs Gayle (W.A. “Tacky” Gayle, Mayor of Montgomery) in the U. S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama in February 1956. After the suit was filed, the city increased its pressure on the MIA. Dr. King and 90 of his followers were arrested and charged with conspiring to conduct a boycott. During the trial, Gray consulted with (NAACP legendary attorney and future Supreme Court justice)) Thurgood Marshall, who had recently won the “Brown” case and had an outstanding track record dealing with civil rights issues. The trial attracted national attention and to Dr. King’s crusade for civil rights.
MIA, through the plaintiffs, sought a judgment in the federal court – which has jurisdiction over the constitutionality of state laws – against the State of Alabama, and by inference the city of Montgomery, that the state statutes and city ordinances that provided for the enforcement of racial segregation on public transportation denied the Black citizens of Montgomery equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Using the authority of 28 U.S.C., 2281, 1331 and 1343, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in June of 1956; it was a victory for MIA. It stated that the bus segregation laws in the city of Montgomery “deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the Fourteenth Amendment.” The court also enjoined the defendants from continuing to operate segregated buses for the public. Gayle and the city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and in November of 1956, the Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional, and was outlawed. It officially reached the city of Montgomery one month later and MIA ended the boycott the next day.
Browder vs. Gayle was a victory for MIA but legally it only applied to public buses not to racial prejudice in Montgomery, Alabama or any place in America. Segregation and discrimination continued throughout the South. Using the ruling as leverage, leaders of MIA decided to challenge segregation in other areas. However, they paid a heavy price; their churches and homes were bombed, and they were openly and covertly attacked.
The MIA lost some its national prominence after Dr. King moved from Montgomery to Atlanta in 1960, however, it continued campaigns that focused on voter registration, local school integration of parks, libraries and other public places, invoking the Fourteenth Amendment and Sections 1981, 1982, and 1983 of the Civil Rights Act – the laws that had succeeded in the Browder vs Gayle case.
After Dr. King’s tenure at the helm of the MIA, Johnnie R. Carr took over the reins of the organization and successfully challenged Montgomery’s school segregation policies in court. (She continued as president of MIA for the next five decades until her passing in 2008). Carr was a childhood friend of Rosa Parks. She, among many others including Nixon, Robinson and Gray, were the unsung heroes and “sheroes” of the MIA and indeed the Civil Rights Movement. U.S. Congressman John Lewis, one of the civil rights pioneers, who “walked” with Dr. King said, “Mrs. Carr must be looked on as one of the founders of a new America because she was there with Rosa Parks, E.D. Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others.” It was after his work at the MIA that led Dr. King to found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
As a union organizer before the Montgomery incident, Nixon had been campaigning for civil and voting rights for Blacks, particularly in the South. During the boycott, his home was bombed and he endured numerous indignities before it was all over. Nixon ran for a seat on the county Democratic Executive Committee and would question prospective candidates about their positions on civil rights issues. Later on while describing the boycott to a group of supporters, he said: “I’m from Montgomery, Alabama, a city that’s known as the ‘Cradle of the Confederacy’, that had stood still for more than 93 years until Rosa Parks was arrested and thrown in jail like a common criminal. Fifty thousand people rose up and caught hold to the Cradle of the Confederacy and began to rock it ’til the ‘Jim Crow’ rockers began to reel and the segregated slats began to fall out.”
In addition to being an attorney, Gray was also an ordained minister. He was 25 years old and just out of law school when Parks was arrested. He served as the attorney in her criminal trial and he also represented some of the other plaintiffs who formed the basis for the “Browder” case, in their criminal cases, including Colvin. And of course, he was the lead attorney in the ‘Browder’ case. Gray’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement continued and he went on to represent the Freedom Riders; civil rights marchers and protesters; and most famously, the victims of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.
Robinson and Nixon were the first to call for a bus boycott and were also among the first to be indicted for their actions relative to the protest. Prior to Parks’ arrest, Robinson had experienced the indignity of being displaced on the public bus and had entertained the idea of a bus boycott, but it never materialized. The Parks’ incident provided the resurgence of her idea of a bus boycott and along with Nixon, she was ready to go. She was a university professor and played an active behind-the-scenes role. In her memoirs, Robinson wrote, “The Women’s Political Council will not wait for Mrs. Parks’ consent to call for a boycott of city buses.”
Though the MIA came into being out of Montgomery Bus Boycott, it injected its activities into the Civil Rights Movement, and has spawned tributaries of protest actions that have changed the racial and social landscape of America for all time.
Dr. King once said about the MIA boycott: “We came to see that in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation.”Â Â