[November 13th marked the 65th anniversary of a key moment in the unfolding history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that Civil Rights Movement activism, leading up to a weekend post on 21st century legacies and echoes!]
On important victories, horrific backlash, and the importance of remembering both.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott ended with a pair of court decisions that were in their own way just as important to the early Civil Rights Movement as Brown v. Board. On June 5, 1956, a federal district court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that Alabama’s racial segregation on buses was unconstitutional; the state appealed the decision, and on November 13th of the same year (the anniversary which inspired this entire week’s series of posts) the United States Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Perhaps the precedent of Brown would have inevitably, eventually undermined racial segregation in all areas and forms—but given that prior decision’s education-specific focus, it’s at least fair to say that subsequent cases which addressed racial segregation more broadly were necessary and crucial in the lead up to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And given the central significance of transportation to both the rise of Jim Crow segregation and the Supreme Court’s support for that discriminatory system, it’s quite poetic that it was buses which provided the vehicle for this crucial legal victory.
Buses also became one of many sites of immediate and horrifically violent white supremacist backlash to these legal victories, however. Desegregated buses began operating in the city on December 20th, and over the following week snipers shot at multiple buses; the first shootings apparently and fortunately yielded no casualties, but on December 28th snipers badly wounded 22 year old Rosa Jordan, a pregnant African American woman traveling on an integrated bus. That violence was complemented by other domestic terrorist attacks in the city over the same period, including a December 23rd shotgun blast through Martin Luther King Jr’s front door and the January 10th, 1957 bombings of four Black churches and the homes of both Ralph Abernathy and Reverend Robert S. Graetz, one of the city’s most prominent white allies of the boycott. The Montgomery City Commission suspended all bus service for three weeks after those bombings; while the integrated buses eventually resumed operation, the white supremacist violence likewise continued, including the January 23rd lynching of 24 year old Willie Edwards by members of the city’s Ku Klux Klan.
Beyond the simple and crucial fact that they all happened, there’s another reason to better remember both these victories and these horrors in the aftermath of the boycott: they complicate a pair of overly simplified and interconnected narratives of the Civil Rights Movement. One of those narratives boils the movement down to singular figures and moments—especially MLK and “I Have a Dream,” but also for example Rosa Parks (and an inaccurate vision of her at that, as I highlighted Tuesday). The other emphasizes too fully the inspiring and unifying sides to those figures and moments, and in so doing downplays the ongoing backlash, violence, and domestic terrorism with which white supremacist America met the movement, in its own era and for the half-century since. The harder and more meaningful truth of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Civil Rights Movement alike was that its victories were hard-won and multi-layered, fraught and fragile, part of the longstanding and evolving battle between inclusion and exclusion, mythic and critical patriotism, the best and worst of America. We’re not gonna get anywhere until we can remember all those layers to our histories, and the Montgomery Bus Boycott is a vital case in point.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Sides to this history or histories like it you’d highlight?