The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott & the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow
By Donnie Williams with Wayne Greenshaw
Lawrence Hill Books, 2007
293 pages, $23.95 (pb)
On December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks — as she had done many times before — caught the bus home after another long day at work sewing.
As had also happened many times before, she was asked by an abusive bus driver to move when a white passenger boarded. She had always obeyed before but this time she refused.
It was not pre-meditated but she had had enough: "I felt all the meanness of every white driver I'd seen who'd been ugly to me and other black people through the years I'd known on the buses in Montgomery."
Her arrest, for she had broken a municipal segregation law, began a 382-day Black boycott of the Montgomery buses and launched the Black civil rights struggle in the US South. In The Thunder of Angels, the Montgomery bus boycott is retold by Williams and Greenshaw largely in the words of the people who lived through this momentous struggle.
Montgomery was known as the "Cradle of the Confederacy", the birth town of the Confederate States of America in 1861 when the southern secessionist states made their last-ditch stand for slavery. Their defeat in the civil war lifted Montgomery's African-Americans from third-class to second-class citizens, where they languished, at risk of losing their jobs if they spoke out against discrimination or stood up for their human rights.
Montgomery local, Ed Nixon — as a railway porter with the threat of sacking held in check by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Care Porters (the Black rail porters' union) — was less constrained. He had been a labour organiser, welfare advocate and civil rights terrier in Montgomery since the 1930s. Montgomery's segregated buses were a flashpoint and Nixon saw in Rosa Parks' bus sit-down the spark that would ignite a civil rights campaign.
In Parks, a small woman with a frail frame, Nixon saw not only a kind soul but a woman who "had a strength about her that was gigantic". She was dignified, reserved and highly respected.
She was a part-time secretary to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) branch in Montgomery. She was the ideal test case to challenge Montgomery's bus-seating segregation.
The city's bus laws were designed to humiliate and remind Blacks of their inferior status. Black riders had to pay the bus driver at the front of the bus, go back to the pavement and enter the bus at the rear and sit behind the "coloured-only" rope. If two to four Black riders were seated in the one, four-seat, row, all had to stand to let one white person sit because Blacks were not allowed to sit in the same row as whites.
Pregnant Black women had to vacate their seat, and stand if necessary, to provide a seat for a white rider. Drivers frequently delivered their orders to move garnished with racial abuse.
Being Black and riding a bus could also be a death warrant. In the previous two years, at least three Black riders were killed on buses by police for failing to follow drivers' orders.
Only one murder made it to the news. Nothing was done about any of them.
Official channels for redress proved barren. For years, Black delegations met with city commissioners and the bus company (Montgomery City Lines) but nothing was ever done to change the humiliating practices, apart from dropping the requirement to pay at the front and enter at the rear, a rule removed so quietly that many riders continued the practice long after it had been dropped.
The way to change lay elsewhere. The bus company depended on the Black population for its profits — more than 90% of its riders were Black. If Blacks didn't ride, the bus company made no money.
On Monday the December 5, 1955, four days after Rosa Parks sat down for her rights, a boycott of the buses began. The Black Women's Political Council organised the fliers, Black preachers spread the word on the Sunday and virtually no Black person rode the buses that Monday.
Nixon, whose railroad work took him out of town for long stretches, saw the need for an on-the-spot organiser, and the dynamic, young Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., recently arrived from Atlanta, began his civil rights campaigning as the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which organised alternative transport through private car pools, mobilising 250-350 cars.
Church services doubled as mass rallies and fundraisers. White supporters in Montgomery boycotted the buses in solidarity and money (crucial for petrol) flowed in from Black and white across the states.
As the boycott stretched into weeks and months, morale was severely tested. Dirty tricks were supplied by racist vigilantes. Death threats were made to boycott leaders. Home-made dynamite bombs were used against the homes of King, Nixon and Reverend Graetz (a white Lutheran minister supporting the boycott).
The Ku Klux Klan was behind most of the cowardly violence, but they also found time to gather five thousand white-hooded race-haters for a rally where the KKK's Grand Dragon railed against "Yankee Communists and niggers" against the backdrop of a forty-foot high cross burning into the night.
The official forces of racial law and order also counter-attacked. King was arrested for "speeding". The unfortunate Graetz (doubly hated by racists for being a white "nigger-lover") was arrested for providing an "illegal taxi service".
The Alabama state parliament played the red ace, launching an investigation into alleged links between the NAACP and the Communist Party of the USA. In the last weeks of the boycott, the Montgomery attorney-general banned the NAACP.
Municipal authorities also wheeled out an old 1921 anti-strike law that made "leadership or conspiracy" of boycotts illegal, and 98 Black leaders (including Parks and King) were arrested. A dutiful judge found King, their main target, guilty and he was fined US$500.
Attempts to decapitate the boycott campaign were not successful, however, and only when the courts declared that the car pool itself was illegal for being an unlicensed taxi service was the foundation of the boycott hit hard. Boycotters now had to walk.
As they trudged the pavements in the last weeks, however, a legal suit by the boycott campaign was nearing its climax. A federal court had found that public transport segregation in Alabama was unconstitutional, in line with a recent Supreme Court decision that segregation in schools was unconstitutional.
Montgomery municipal authorities had appealed to the Supreme Court against the federal court ruling. They lost. On December 21 1956, Montgomery's buses were finally integrated, after more than a year of dogged boycott and near-empty buses in the face of state harassment and Klan violence.
There were many more civil rights struggles ahead in the die-hard racist South, more vigilante and state violence unleashed, more Black churches and community leaders' homes bombed, more blind eyes turned by the police, more exonerations of race-hate crimes by all-white juries.
Martin Luther King had only twelve years of life left before his assassination in 1968. Elite power, based on fostering racial division, recognised the threat of King, the threat of more Montgomery.
As King said in a sermon-fundraiser in Chicago in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott "is part of something that's happening all over the world. The oppressed peoples of the world are rising up. They are revolting against colonialism, imperialism, and other systems of oppression."
The stakes were high, in Montgomery and the world, but the determination of the Black boycotters, and their white supporters, was resolute. Victory was sweet and the civil rights struggle moved on, prouder and stronger.