The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 50 Years Later

Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. Ed Gordon looks back at the seminal protest and its impact with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Fred Shuttlesworth, who helped organize the boycott, and Montgomery's current mayor, Bobby Bright.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Fifty years ago today, black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, decided they'd rather walk than ride the city's segregated buses. The Montgomery bus boycott jump-started a civil rights revolution in America and made household names of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Over the next few days, NEWS & NOTES will bring you a series of stories and voices from Montgomery celebrating the courage of a community that changed the world. In a moment, we'll hear from the face of modern Montgomery, Mayor Bobby Bright.

But first, civil rights pioneer John Lewis. He was just 15 when the bus boycott began. That was 10 years before he would lead a peaceful protest on Bloody Sunday. Now a US congressman, Lewis still remembers the thrill of hope he felt as the boycott began.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): More than anything else, it was one of the most exciting periods for a young child like myself growing up in rural Alabama 50 miles from Montgomery. I followed the drummer of the bus boycott, followed the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. It gave me a great sense of optimism that something was about the change in the American South.

GORDON: When you think about someone whose life has really literally been changed and affected by that and while it touches all of us, those of you on the front lines certainly have perhaps even more endearing memories and thoughts of all that went on. Today, when you speak of hope and optimism, do you still hold strong to that?

Rep. LEWIS: I still have a great deal of hope and optimism because I truly believe that the action of Rosa Parks and the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. inspired so many of us to find a way to get in the way. When I was growing up, my mother, my father, my grandparents, my great-grandparents told us when we asked about segregation, racial discrimination, `Don't get in trouble. Don't get in the way.' But Dr. King, Rosa Parks and so many others gave us examples like getting in the way, and that's why I was inspired to meet Rosa Parks at the age of 17 in 1957. As a matter of fact, I met Rosa Parks before I met Dr. King. I didn't meet him till 1958 at the age of 18. And I don't know where our nation, where we were would be as a people if it hadn't been for those nonviolent action in Montgomery 50 years ago.

GORDON: When we hear the words golden anniversary, we certainly believe that that is something to be saluted and we will do so, but one of the things that also happens is we start to see memories that fade. Things that often were more tangible 25 years ago become a distant memory and for some, just a page in a book. How do we keep the importance of this alive?

Rep. LEWIS: It is so important to find a way to keep this legacy alive because so many of the people that participated are not here. So you won't have the sort of first-hand information. So we must not only tell the story through writings and tapes and videos, but we must also take people back to Montgomery, take people to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery so they can feel and touch. Go back to those churches where the mass meetings were held. Take our young people, our children on educational tours so they can be inspired by saying, `This is where Rosa Parks got on the bus. This is the church where the mass meeting was held.' I think it's important to touch these stones, these historic fights that brought us to the point where we are today.

GORDON: One last question, Congressman. In silent meditation, what would you like to see people think about?

Rep. LEWIS: More than anything else, I would love to see people just pause and reflect that it took courage, nothing but raw courage for a young black woman to take a seat and be asked to get up and move but deny the request, refuse to get up. She defied the status quo and she defied segregation, she defied racial discrimination. And she could have been beaten. She could have been killed, but she was arrested and went to jail. And this simple act by this one human being sparked what I call a nonviolent revolution. It only (unintelligible) for one person, but one person can and we all should be inspired that we, too, can make a difference.

GORDON: And we should note that a decade later, you and many others stood up on Bloody Sunday and did the same and added yet another wonderful page to the history of the grand civil rights movement. John Lewis, we thank you for your time today.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, thank you very much.

GORDON: The city's current mayor, Bobby Bright, credits the bus boycott with changing the way he saw the world. Mayor Bright remembers, as a little white boy, not understanding why blacks couldn't sit at the front of the bus or share the same lunch counter with him.

Mayor BOBBY BRIGHT (Montgomery, Georgia): I would read the newspaper articles and I would watch TV back in those years and wonder why there was a big problem with that and why some of the people in my race did not want that to happen. And I was a very, very poor sharecropper's son and so I--you know, in my own way, I was discriminated against because of the economics and because of the social standing in life that I had, too. So I knew that that was not right. And as years went by, if I ever had an opportunity, I would try my best to make things better and make things right, not just for the black community but for the poor community and for poor white people And we have a lot of them here in Montgomery. And I want people to be committed, whether you're in the African-American community or whether you're in the white community, Asian community or Hispanic community, is that when you see and you're confronted and you see traces of discrimination, you commit yourself to fight it in every way you possibly can.

GORDON: How difficult has it been to make sure that people understand that Montgomery has, in fact, grown with the times?

Mayor BRIGHT: Public perception many times controls the destiny of a situation or even, in our case, a city. And Montgomery's always been known as a very polarized, segregated type of community, but when people come down and they see what we have to offer here, the laid-back lifestyle, the Southern hospitality, the beautiful scenery that we have here and also the very beautiful weather that we have here. People change their opinions and we have, you know, we've come a long way over the last 50 years. We've still got a ways to go, but I think any location throughout the world would say the same thing. They have always a ways to go before they have a perfect community. And I'm not sure anyone will ever get that perfect community. But Montgomery--I am just proud to be mayor of Montgomery.

GORDON: Mr. Mayor, what of the idea of understanding history, if you will? So much is being made obviously with the passing of Mrs. Parks...

Mayor BRIGHT: Sure.

GORDON: ...but ofttimes, what we find is many people beyond the name Rosa Parks and her not getting up, they don't know much more about it than that simply. Do you hope that this will spark people to delve further into history and understand the dynamics of all that occurred?

Mayor BRIGHT: I certainly do, Ed. And I hope people will not just hear people talk about Ms. Rosa Parks, but they will pick up these books, they'll watch the movies involving Ms. Rosa Parks and what she stood for. And it's not just Ms. Rosa Parks. This 50th anniversary is not just about one lady, it's about a movement of hundreds and thousands of people that worked hard and risked their lives here in Montgomery, Alabama, and throughout the nation and throughout the world. So it's incumbent upon us as individuals to recognize the value of the movement and to learn as much as we possibly can about it and to hold those people up and to honor those people for what they did. You know, I don't want people to get lost on what we're doing here. We need to review our history, but we also--what this has--the most important thing that I think that we have here in Montgomery by celebrating the 50th anniversary is a public acknowledgment that even though our past has been somewhat spotted, we need to pick up the pieces today and move forward together and make our nation and our community a stronger community by working together and move forward. And that's what I'm focused on right now. This gives Montgomery an opportunity to reconcile our differences and to say, `OK, we're brothers and sisters, let's move forward and do it together and do it proudly.'

GORDON: And, Mr. Mayor, before we let you go, there will be 10 days of celebration. Talk to us about a couple of the big events that you'll be associated with and the city's putting on.

Mayor BRIGHT: We'll be glad to, Ed. It's a--we start out with a prayer breakfast. Dr. King's daughter will be here as our guest speaker and it's being hosted by my wife, the first lady of Montgomery. And later on that morning, we will have, I hope, one of the largest children's marches ever. And it's going to be--they'll meet at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum downtown and they'll march from the museum to the state capital. The next day that I'm involved in is the gala. And we'll have a lot of national figures there, but we'll also honor some of the people who are products--residents of Montgomery and also the product of the civil rights movement. And I'm--such as Hank Aaron and Dr. Jenison(ph) will be there and be honored. And so we're looking forward to that gala on Friday night. We've got events on Saturday and it just goes on for about two weeks.

GORDON: Well, Mr. Mayor, so much going on in your city and you're ready to host it...

Mayor BRIGHT: Sure.

GORDON: ...with all of the dignitaries and others coming in to celebrate the 50th anniversary. We thank you for your time and looking forward to seeing you.

Mayor BRIGHT: Thank you, Ed, so very much.

GORDON: There were many people involved in making the boycott a success. One of them was Fred Shuttlesworth who helped organize the boycott and later co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. King. He says he still believes in the movement but feels the momentum has slowed in recent years because people have gone away from the Montgomery model.

Reverend FRED SHUTTLESWORTH (Co-founder, Southern Christian Leadership Conference): I was there to drive down from Birmingham that day. When it started, you couldn't get to Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery. They had Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King in a little room back there. I was known, so they took me right back there. It was a wonderful experience to see this tiny young woman, this person dedicated, so quiet, so serene and so determined. This is what we need now out of everybody. The people need to quit just talking and do some walking again.

GORDON: That was the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Before that, we heard from Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright and Congressman John Lewis. One note, we'll be broadcasting part of next week from Montgomery.

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