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Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. covers the entire life of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement

Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, this is the most comprehensive book ever written about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Based on more than seven hundred interviews, access to King’s personal papers, and thousands of FBI documents, Bearing the Cross traces King’s metamorphosis from a young, earnest pastor into the foremost spokesperson of the black freedom struggle. At the book’s heart is King’s growing awareness of the symbolic meaning of the cross as he gradually accepts a life that will demand the ultimate in self-sacrifice. This is a towering portrait of a man at the epicenter of one of the most dramatic periods in our history.

ISBN-13: 9780060566920

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication Date: 01-06-2004

Pages: 800

Product Dimensions: 7.98(w) x 5.46(h) x 2.15(d)

Series: Perennial Classics

David J. Garrow is Professor of Law & History and Distinguished Faculty Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. He is the author of four books, including Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, New York Times, and The American Prospect. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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Bearing the Cross

Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

By David J. Garrow


Copyright © 1986 David J. Garrow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1152-5


The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955–1956

Thursday had been busy and tiring for Mrs. Raymond A. Parks. Her job as a tailor's assistant at the Montgomery Fair department store had left her neck and shoulder particularly sore, and when she left work at 5:30 P.M. that December 1, 1955, she went across the street to a drugstore in search of a heating pad. Mrs. Parks didn't find one, but she purchased a few other articles before recrossing the street to her usual bus stop on Court Square. The buses were especially crowded this cold, dark evening, and when she boarded one for her Cleveland Avenue route, only one row of seats—the row immediately behind the first ten seats that always were reserved for whites only—had any vacancies. She took an aisle seat, with a black man on her right next to the window, and two black women in the parallel seat across the way.

As more passengers boarded at each of the two next stops, the blacks moved to the rear, where they stood, and the whites occupied their exclusive seats at the front of the bus. At the third stop, more passengers got on, and one, a white male, was left standing after the final front seat was taken. The bus driver, J. F. Blake, looked back and called out to Mrs. Parks and her three colleagues, "All right you folks, I want those two seats." Montgomery's customary practice of racial preference demanded that all four blacks would have to stand in order to allow one white man to sit, since no black was allowed to sit parallel with a white. No one moved at first. Blake spoke out again: "You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats." At that, the two women across from Mrs. Parks rose and moved to the rear; the man beside her rose also, and she moved her legs to allow him out into the aisle. She remained silent, but shifted to the window side of the seat.

Blake could see that Mrs. Parks had not arisen. "Look, woman, I told you I wanted the seat. Are you going to stand up?" At that, Rosa Lee McCauley Parks uttered her first word to him: "No." Blake responded, "If you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested."

Mrs. Parks told him to go right ahead, that she was not going to move. Blake said nothing more, but got off the bus and went to a phone. No one spoke to Mrs. Parks, and some passengers began leaving the bus, not wanting to be inconvenienced by the incident. Mrs. Parks was neither frightened nor angry. "I was thinking that the only way to let them know I felt I was being mistreated was to do just what I did—resist the order," she later recalled. "I had not thought about it and I had taken no previous resolution until it happened, and then I simply decided that I would not get up. I was tired, but I was usually tired at the end of the day, and I was not feeling well, but then there had been many days when I had not felt well. I had felt for a long time, that if I was ever told to get up so a white person could sit, that I would refuse to do so." The moment had come, and she had had the courage to say no.

Blake returned from the phone, and stood silently in the front of the bus. After a few minutes, a police squad car pulled up, and two officers, F. B. Day and D. W. Mixon, got on the bus. Blake pointed to Mrs. Parks, said he needed the seat, and that "the other ones stood up." The two policemen came toward her, and one, in Mrs. Parks's words, "asked me if the driver hadn't asked me to stand. I said yes. He asked, 'Why didn't you stand up?' I said I didn't think I should have to. I asked him, 'Why do you push us around?' He said, 'I don't know, but the law is the law, and you are under arrest.' So the moment he said I was under arrest, I stood up. One picked up my purse, one picked up my shopping bag, and we got off the bus." They escorted her to the patrol car, and returned to talk to Blake. The driver confirmed that he wanted to press charges under Montgomery's bus segregation ordinance, and the officers took Mrs. Parks first to police headquarters and then to the city jail. By then Mrs. Parks was tense, and her throat was uncommonly dry. She spied a water fountain, but was quickly told that she could not drink from it—it was for whites only. Her processing complete, Mrs. Parks was allowed to call home and tell her family what had transpired.

Word of Mrs. Parks's arrest began to spread even before that phone call. One passenger on the bus told a friend of Mrs. Parks's about the event, and that friend, Mrs. Bertha Butler, immediately called the home of longtime black activist E. D. Nixon, a past president of Montgomery's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter and the most outspoken figure in the black community. Nixon was not at home, but his wife, Arlet, was, and she phoned his small downtown office. Nixon was out at the moment, but when he returned a few moments later, he saw the message to call home. "What's up?" he asked his wife. She told him of Mrs. Parks's arrest, but couldn't tell him what the charge was. Nixon hung up and immediately called the police station.

The desk officer rudely told Nixon that the charges against Mrs. Parks were none of his business. Determined to pursue the matter, but knowing that Montgomery's principal black lawyer, Fred Gray, was out of town, Nixon called the home of a white lawyer, Clifford Durr, one of the city's few racial liberals. Durr agreed to call the station and learn the charges, and after doing so he immediately called Nixon back and related the details. Nixon told Durr that he would go down and sign the $100 bond to secure Mrs. Parks's release, and Durr told him to stop by and that he would go along. When Nixon pulled up in front of the house, both Durr and his wife, Virginia, hurried out to meet him, and the three set off for the city jail.

Mrs. Parks, Mr. Nixon, and the Durrs all had known each other for a number of years. Mrs. Parks, forty-two years old at the time of her arrest, had been an active member and occasional officer of Montgomery's NAACP chapter since 1943, and had worked with Nixon on a number of voter registration efforts. Nixon, a Pullman porter whose job regularly took him to Chicago and other northern cities, had been a stalwart member of A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as well as a local activist, since the 1920s. The Durrs, Alabama natives who had returned to the state several years earlier following Clifford's service on the Federal Communications Commission, had become friendly with Nixon through his political activism. Needing a good seamstress to help with her children's clothes, Mrs. Durr had asked Nixon if he could recommend anyone, and Nixon told her he knew just the person: his NAACP colleague, Mrs. Rosa Parks. Beginning in 1953 or 1954, Mrs. Parks was a regular visitor to the Durrs' home.

Over the years, the Durrs had heard distressing stories of how Montgomery bus drivers regularly insulted black passengers. Mrs. Parks once told them about how she had been physically thrown off a bus some ten years earlier when, after paying her fare at the front of the bus, she had refused to get off and reenter by the back door—a custom often inflicted on black riders.

On their way to the jail Nixon and the Durrs discussed the possibility of Mrs. Parks being a test case. They knew how strong her character was, and they had seen a strengthened self-confidence in her the past few months, following a two-week interracial conference that the Durrs had arranged for her to attend at Tennessee's Highlander Folk School in late July. At the jail, the desk officer instinctively handed the bond papers to Clifford Durr for signature. Durr told him, no, Mr. Nixon, a property owner, would be the man to sign. Mrs. Parks was released, and they all headed to the Parks's home to discuss the matter over coffee.

Clifford Durr listened to Mrs. Parks's description of her arrest on the bus, and explained how, under the precise terms of Montgomery's segregation ordinance, she could not be convicted for refusing to get up, since no other seat had been available for her to move to, as the law required. Nixon, however, emphasized that this was just what they had been waiting for. "This is the case. We can boycott the bus lines with this and at the same time go to the Supreme Court." Mrs. Parks was not immediately convinced that her arrest could be the spark for all of that, but Nixon's enthusiasm soon persuaded her. Although her husband was extremely fearful of possible white reprisals, Mrs. Parks told Nixon, "If you think it is all right, I'll go along with you."

Meanwhile, Fred Gray had returned to town and learned of Mrs. Parks's arrest. He immediately called Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women's Political Council (WPC) and a key community activist who had moved to Montgomery in 1949 to teach English at Alabama State College. At Christmas of that year, Mrs. Robinson had boarded a bus on her way to the airport to visit relatives in Cleveland. She sat toward the front, but suddenly was roused from her holiday thoughts when the driver angrily ordered her to the rear. "He was standing over me, saying, 'Get up from there! Get up from there,' with his hand drawn back," she later recalled. Shaken and frightened, Mrs. Robinson fled from the bus. "I felt like a dog. And I got mad, after this was over, and I realized that I was a human being, and just as intelligent and far more trained than that bus driver was. But I think he wanted to hurt me, and he did ... I cried all the way to Cleveland."

That experience had convinced Mrs. Robinson that the Women's Political Council, which her friend and colleague Mrs. Mary Fair Burks had founded in 1946, ought to target the bus situation. "It was then that I made up ... my mind that whatever I could add to that organization that would help to bring that practice down, I would do it," Mrs. Robinson explained. "When I came back, the first thing I did was to call a meeting ... and tell them what had happened." Only then did she learn that her experience was far from unique, that dozens of other black citizens, primarily women, had suffered similar abuse. "Everyone would look the other way. Nobody would acknowledge what was going on," Mrs. Burks remembered. "It outraged me that this kind of conduct was going on," and that so far no black community organizations had done anything about it.

Throughout the early 1950s the Women's Political Council, sometimes in conjunction with Nixon or Nixon's chief rival for active leadership in the black community, businessman and former Alabama State football coach Rufus Lewis, who headed the Citizens Steering Committee, repeatedly complained to Montgomery's three popularly elected city commissioners about how the municipally chartered Montgomery City Lines mistreated its black customers. The commissioners politely, but consistently, brushed aside the WPC's entreaties concerning drivers' behavior and how blacks had to stand while whites-only seats remained vacant. In early 1954 Mrs. Robinson suggested to the commissioners "a city law that would make it possible for Negroes to sit from back toward front, and whites from front toward back until all seats are taken," so that no one would have to stand over a vacant seat, but again the officials were unresponsive.

Then, on May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its widely heralded school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which explicitly held that the segregationist doctrine of "separate but equal" was unconstitutional. Her spirits lifted, Mrs. Robinson four days later sent a firm declaration to Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gayle. The WPC was "very grateful" for their previous meeting, she said, but the black community was insistent that the bus situation be improved, and white officials had best remember that "three-fourths of the riders of these public conveyances are Negroes. If Negroes did not patronize them, they could not possibly operate." Her letter continued:

There has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses. We, sir, do not feel that forceful measures are necessary in bargaining for a convenience which is right for all bus passengers. We ... believe that when this matter has been put before you and the commissioners, that agreeable terms can be met in a quiet and unostensible manner to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Other Alabama cities, such as Mobile, were using the front-to-back and back-to-front seating policy without any problems, Mrs. Robinson reminded Gayle. Why could not Montgomery do the same? "Please consider this plea," she wrote him, "and if possible, act favorably upon it, for even now plans are being made to ride less, or not at all, on our buses. We do not want this."

Robinson's hints about a boycott were not supported by any unified sentiment in the black community. One mid-1954 meeting of community leaders had found a majority opposed to any boycott at that time. The stalemate continued into early 1955 as Nixon and the WPC privately discussed the possibility of mounting a legal challenge to Montgomery's bus seating practices. Then, on March 2, 1955, an incident occurred that galvanized the long-smoldering black sentiments. A fifteen-year-old high school student, Claudette Colvin, refused a driver's demand that she give up her bus seat, well toward the rear of the vehicle, to allow newly boarding whites to sit down. Policemen dragged Colvin from the bus, and word spread quickly. Mrs. Robinson and Nixon thought they might have an ideal legal test case. Colvin had been active in the NAACP Youth Council, and the group's advisor, Mrs. Rosa Parks, along with her friend Virginia Durr, began soliciting contributions toward the legal fees. Almost immediately, however, problems developed. First, Colvin's resistance to the arresting officers had resulted in her being charged with assault and battery as well as violating city and state segregation statutes. Second, both Robinson and Nixon learned in independent interviews with Colvin and her family that the young unmarried woman was several months pregnant. Both leaders concluded that Colvin would be neither an ideal candidate for symbolizing the abuse heaped upon black passengers nor a good litigant for a test suit certain to generate great pressures and publicity. Colvin was convicted of both charges, but when her attorney appealed, the prosecutor pressed only the assault count. That conviction was affirmed and the black leadership chose not to pursue the case.

In the wake of the Colvin incident, Mrs. Robinson and a delegation of black leaders, including Nixon and Mrs. Parks, met with one city commissioner and bus company manager James H. Bagley to point out that Montgomery's segregation ordinance specified that a rider could be compelled to surrender a bus seat only if another one was available—and not if the rider would be forced to stand. Nothing came of the session, and three months later Mrs. Robinson, attorney Fred Gray, and other black representatives met with Bagley, Gayle, city attorney Walter Knabe, and bus company attorney Jack Crenshaw to reiterate that the city ordinance required no one to give up a seat on an already full bus, and that nothing in either the ordinance or state law barred Montgomery from adopting the front-to-back, back-to-front seating arrangement that Mobile and other Alabama cities employed. The whites disagreed, and there the matter rested until Mrs. Parks's arrest.

When Mrs. Robinson learned of the arrest late that Thursday night from Fred Gray, she immediately phoned Nixon, who had just gotten home from Mrs. Parks's house. Together they agreed that this was just what they had been waiting for. "We had planned the protest long before Mrs. Parks was arrested," Mrs. Robinson emphasized years later. "There had been so many things that happened, that the black women had been embarrassed over, and they were ready to explode." Also, "Mrs. Parks had the caliber of character we needed to get the city to rally behind us." Robinson told Nixon that she and her WPC colleagues would begin producing boycott leaflets immediately, and the two agreed that the flyers would call on all black people to stay off the buses on Monday, the day of Mrs. Parks's trial. They also agreed that the black community leadership should assemble on Friday. Nixon would organize that meeting, while Robinson would see to the leafletting.


Excerpted from Bearing the Cross by David J. Garrow. Copyright © 1986 David J. Garrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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