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50th Anniversary of Montgomery Bus Boycott

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50th Anniversary of Montgomery Bus Boycott

Remembrances

50th Anniversary of Montgomery Bus Boycott

50th Anniversary of Montgomery Bus Boycott

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Fifty years ago Monday, African-American residents of Montgomery, Ala., began a boycott of the city's bus service to protest racial segregation. Day to Day senior producer Steven Proffitt marks the anniversary, which sparked the national emergence of civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, kid funk, a personal collection of recordings made by kids back in the '70s.

But first, an anniversary. Fifty years ago today, a bus boycott began in Montgomery, Alabama. This grassroots social protest became a pivotal event in the civil rights movement, and it marked the emergence of one of its great leaders.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING: We, the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity and now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality.

(Soundbite of applause)

BRAND: The Reverend Martin Luther King speaking at Holt Street Church in Montgomery on December 5th, 1955. With more on this historic day, here's DAY TO DAY's Steve Proffitt.

STEVE PROFFITT reporting:

The boycott that began on this day 50 years ago was sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks, who died just six weeks ago. In 1955, on Thursday, December 1st, she defied the region's segregationist customs by refusing to give up her seat to a white man who'd gotten on the bus. Parks recounted the event many times in her life, how the bus driver summoned a policeman who got on the bus to investigate.

Ms. ROSA PARKS: He said, `Why don't you stand up?' I said, `I don't think I should have to stand up.' And I asked him, I said, `Why do you push us around?' He said, `I do not know, but the law is the law and you're under arrest.'

PROFFITT: Parks was jailed briefly and fined $14, but the news of her arrest and her act of defiance galvanized the black community in Montgomery. Fliers went out, thousands of them, calling for a bus boycott, and black religious leaders organized their congregations. The message was simple: On Monday, don't ride the bus. And on Monday, the buses were virtually empty.

Ms. GEORGIA GILMORE (Montgomery Resident): It was really surprising because we thought, well, maybe so many people would continue to ride the bus.

PROFFITT: A Montgomery resident, Georgia Gilmore, remembered that day.

Mr. GILMORE: But after all, they had been mistreated and been mistreated in so many different ways until I guess they were tired and they just decided that they just wouldn't ride.

PROFFITT: Late Monday afternoon, local black political and religious leaders met again and decided to continue what had been planned as a one-day boycott. In that meeting, they chose as their leader the new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a 26-year-old Martin Luther King. His wife Coretta remembered her husband arriving at home with the news that he had to head off to the Holt Street Church for a mass meeting about the boycott.

Mrs. CORETTA SCOTT KING (Martin Luther King Jr.'s Widow): So he came home very excited about the fact that he had to give the keynote speech that night at mass meeting. He only had 20 minutes to prepare his speech.

Dr. KING: We are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Dr. KING: If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Dr. KING: If we are wrong, God almighty is wrong.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Ain't gonna let no city come missing (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman and Chorus: Lord, tell me ...(unintelligible). Tell me...

PROFFITT: For the next 380 days, black folks in Montgomery walked, they organized a sort of cab service of private cars and they refused to ride the bus. Finally, on November 13th, 1956, the Supreme Court struck down the law that segregated buses.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: Ain't gonna let segregation ...(unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman and Chorus: Lord, tell me ...(unintelligible)

PROFFITT: On December 20th, the court's ruling went into effect. Blacks in Montgomery reboarded the buses and sat in any available seat. The success of the boycott served as a model for future civil rights victories, and it secured a place for Martin Luther King and his tactics of non-violence at the forefront of the movement. Here's veteran civil rights activist Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

Reverend FRED SHUTTLESWORTH (Veteran Civil Rights Activist): Dr. King spoke with a new voice that you must love, you must not hate. So this had a very profound effect upon not only blacks but whites in this country.

PROFFITT: And on this 50th anniversary at the First Baptist Church in Montgomery, there will be a re-enactment tonight of the mass meeting held a half century ago, a meeting that marked the beginning of the end for segregation laws in America. Steve Proffitt, NPR News.

Dr. KING: It wasn't a victory for 50,000 Negroes in Montgomery. It wasn't merely a victory for 16 million Negroes of America. That was a victory for justice and goodwill.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman and Chorus: (Singing) ...Lordy, tell me how I keep on a-walking, yeah, keep on a-talking, Lordy, marching up to freedom, yeah.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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