History is never as enlightening as when it is told by the women and men who made it. This is certainly the case with the memoir by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson entitled The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It.
This book tells of the extraordinary Montgomery, Ala. bus boycott of 1955-56. Robinson, on the faculty of Alabama State College, a Black school in Montgomery, was chair of the city’s Women’s Political Council (WPC) which was becoming the most active civil rights organization in the city. Made up primarily of state college and public school teachers, the council promoted women’s leadership in civic affairs, voter registration and aid for women victims of rape or assault. Abusively treated on a city bus, Robinson pressed for organizing a bus boycott to force city government to halt racist violence and degradation on public transportation.
A crying need. Like many cities in the South, Montgomery’s bus line was segregated. This meant that the first ten rows of seats were “reserved for whites,” with Blacks forced to sit or stand in the rear. Bus drivers often abused Black customers with racist diatribes or resorted to physical force. Blacks were made to board at the back of the bus and drivers would sometimes pull out before everyone could get on.
Arrests, even of school children, for various “crimes” were not uncommon. Robinson relates the everyday indignities suffered by Black bus riders. There are the teens from another city who were unfamiliar with Jim Crow laws; they refused to vacate their “white” seats and were promptly arrested. A mother with two infants boards a bus and sets her babies in the first white-reserved seat while she fetches the right change. The driver deliberately lurches forward and the babies wind up on the floor as the driver hurls racist epithets.
Against this backdrop, the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott was planned and executed. It sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement. And it was Black women who made it happen.
A movement builds. On Dec. 1, 1955 the women of WPC readied a one-day boycott planned for Dec. 5. Almost overnight it turned into a thirteen-month strike. From beginning to end, it was a mass movement. Leaflets were distributed door-to-door, a weekly newsletter written by Robinson was sent to all boycotters and taken across the country by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to help spread the news and raise money to keep the boycott going.
The Women’s Political Council combined with Black ministers and representatives of civic groups to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and Rev. Martin Luther King was elected President. Station wagons and cars were dispatched to pick-up points around the city to ferry people to and from work while the legal fight wound through the courts.
The MIA held mass public meetings every Monday, attended by thousands, which decided on strategies and demands to present to the immovable city politicians and the bus company. Decisions were taken by a vote of the participants at Monday meetings. To raise much needed money, women baked and sold copious amounts of cakes and sweet potato pies and kept meticulous financial records.
Handbook for political leadership. By far the most important aspect of this memoir is that it serves as a guide on how to fight the system. One learns the key to productive resistance is solidarity, clear goals, financial honesty and authentic democracy. When everyone knows they have a voice and a stake in the outcome, the movement is stronger.
Reading this memoir, I couldn’t help contrasting the Montgomery Bus Boycott with the Occupy Movement that swept this country in 2011. As a protest movement against economic inequality and corporate greed, it was thrilling. But lack of organization and contempt for accountable leadership doomed it from the beginning.
No coherent demands were ever advanced. Worse still, democratic votes and discussions were jettisoned in favor of a shapeless consensus. Once cold weather set in and the cops descended on dwindling protesters, the occupiers moved on with nothing left to show for their sacrifices.
In contrast, Montgomery’s Black community set up a complex transportation system that carried some 25,000 people every day for more than a year and won the fight to desegregate the city’s buses.
Everybody walked taller. As Robinson wrote, “Protest against the white man’s traditional policy of white supremacy had created a new person in the Negro. The new spirit, the new feeling did something to Blacks individually and collectively, and each liked the feeling. There was no turning back! There was only one way out — the buses must be changed!”
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