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Reclaiming Black women’s history: the Montgomery bus boycott 60 years on

With police violence against Black communities giving rise to the #Blacklivesmatter campaign, anniversaries of civil rights victories are an opportunity to bring to light the invisible actors behind historic moments. 

Jo Ann Robinson, Head of the Women's Political Council which initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott

In 2013, Angela Davis came to the UK on a lecture tour on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and argued elegantly and eloquently about how such celebrations, represented as the high point on the road to triumphal democracy, enact historical closures. That is to say, the celebration suggests that the civil rights movement has achieved its goals when the reverse is true – when vigilante violence is at its height, when continuing police violence against black communities has given rise to the #Blacklivesmatter campaign and when the prison industrial complex continues to imprison disproportionate numbers of young black men. She argued that freedom is a constant struggle and such commemorations must be used to highlight the continuities. From the fabric of that argument, she pulled out another thread: that an anniversary is an opportunity to bring to light the invisible actors of that historical moment.

Angela Davis, 2012. Photo:Press Association, All rights reserved. Angela Davis, 2012. Photo:Press Association, All rights reserved.

Martin Luther King rose to prominence as a result of the boycott but his larger than life figure eclipsed from view the Black women who organised and sustained the boycott; we may know that Rosa Parks kicked off the boycott through her brave and defiant gesture, but it was the Women’s Political Council (WPC) who had been planning a boycott for some time who realised that Rosa Parks’s legendary action in December 1955, of continuing to sit in her seat in order to stand up for her rights,  was the inciting incident they had been waiting for. It was also predominantly black women, 90 per cent of whom were domestic workers who depended on the Montgomery buses to travel to work, who kept it going. Without their commitment, the year-long bus boycott which ended in December 1956 would not have been successful. Angela Davis even speculated whether King would have risen to prominence. On the 60th anniversary of that boycott, there is another important lesson to be learnt, especially in the era of privatisation, that the boycott hit the bus company hard precisely because it was privately run and the boycott was burning a large hole in its pockets.

Black residents walking to work during the Montgomery bus boycott 1955 -1956. Photo: public domain.

The memoir of Jo Ann Robinson, a professor of English at the Alabama State College, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It tells this little known story of the role of the WPC which she headed. It is startling and predictable in equal measure as is the case with all women’s histories that have been erased from the record. She says modestly that her reasons for writing the memoir are to leave an accurate account of the struggle of Black people for justice in the Deep South – nowhere does she mention that it is to give Black women their due place in history. The WPC had received many complaints from other Black passengers and, along with other black organisations, had met with the city administration and bus company officials and won small temporary victories like bus stops at the same distance in Black areas, i.e. every block, as in the white areas.

In 1955 two Black women had been arrested and fined for refusing to give up their seats to white people even though they were not sitting in the seats reserved for whites before Rosa Parks’s action on 1st December. There was a rumbling discontent among the Black community yet no organisation, nor any of the church leaders like Martin Luther King, called for a boycott. But the night after Rosa Parks’s arrest, on Friday morning, Jo Ann Robinson decided that the time had come. With a small group of helpers, she stayed up all night to duplicate over fifty thousand leaflets calling for a boycott on Monday 5 December, the day that Rosa Parks was going to appear in court. They asked Black taxi drivers to drop their rates and private car owners to drive people to work for free. The organisers had planned to keep it secret from white people but one domestic worker handed the leaflet to her white employer who alerted the media and the news was splashed across television and the papers in the intervening weekend. The unexpected publicity contributed to the success of the strike because news spread to those parts that the leaflets didn’t reach.

Media scaremongering about ‘Negro goon squads’ who were apparently going to harass those who ignored the boycott also ensured the success of it by dissuading the timid hearted from travelling. The buses ran mostly empty as 75 to 80 percent of bus riders were black. The shops were empty and their takings were down.  Seeing that ‘the masses were ready, and they were united’, black Church ministers (of all denominations) for the first time in the history of Montgomery decided to come together under the auspices of a newly formed organisation, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) with Martin Luther King as president. All the officers, bar one, were men and all the secretarial staff were women, drawn from the ranks of the WPC. Jo Ann Robinson and one other member of the WPC were the only women to be elected to the 35-member Executive Board of MIA. Without a trace of resentment, Robinson attributes the success of the boycott to the fact that the church leaders came on board which, no doubt, played a significant role.

The success of the first day of the boycott made everyone determined to keep going until conditions had improved. Despite mass support for the end of segregation, the proposals put forward by MIA were modest: demanding courtesy from bus drivers; proposing that Black people sit from the back of the bus towards the front and whites from the front to the back until all the seats were taken and that nobody should have to stand over an empty seat or surrender a seat once they had taken it; and the third proposal was to employ Black drivers on routes used overwhelmingly by black people. Again it was the women who were far more radical – Robinson says that the end goal for the WPC had been integration from the start but, in his press statements, Martin Luther King denied that they wanted integration. Explosively Robinson says, ‘Men lie sometimes to get by … For the sake of a peaceful fight, we kept silent on integration.’

It took 13 months to achieve their goal. Setting up an alternative transport system, which had to be run with military efficiency, could not rely for so long on a volunteer workforce.  Buying station wagons, petrol, paying for repairs and paying drivers to drive people to work was an expensive business. Again, it was the women who organised the fundraising and large sums of money soon poured in from across America and the world. Leaders of the campaign faced harassment from the police: Robinson’s windows were smashed; King’s housed was firebombed; many of them were arrested and imprisoned.  They received hate mail and threatening phone calls. It took a protracted legal battle to get the courts to declare that segregated transportation was unconstitutional; the battle went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The bus company was losing money, shutting down routes, laying off workers. Ditto businesses as people were simply not travelling to the shops and not buying for Christmas. The head of the bus company would have been happy to accede to the boycotters’ demands as the quest for profit trumps everything, including racism, but his hands were tied by the segregation law. He even went to Mobile, Montgomery’s sister city, to study their integrated system and reported that both Black and white people were happy with the system but Montgomery city commissioners rejected his recommendations for implementing the system, even on a trial basis. Here was an example of how privatisation can unintentionally work in the interests of justice.  It is a significant reminder of our collective power as consumers to bring about change through boycotts. Of course, in this instance, victory was finally possible only through the courts. That victory also rested on the nerve, the organising ability and the radicalism of the women, the unsung heroes, who provided the backbone to this action.

About the author

Rahila Gupta is a freelance journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and New Humanist among other papers and magazines. Her books include, Enslaved: The New British Slavery; From Homebreakers to Jailbreakers: Southall Black Sisters; Provoked;  and 'Don't Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong (Playdead Press, 2013). She is co-authoring a book with Beatrix Campbell with the title Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die? Follow her on twitter @ RahilaG



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