Bus Boycott Changed Social Landscape

Ed Gordon shares his impressions of Montgomery, Ala, 50 years after the bus boycott that helped end legal segregation.

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ED GORDON, host:

Before we go, a quick thought from our trip South. Montgomery is full of celebration these days. Pictures of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King adorn buses and billboards throughout the city. Flowered tributes grace the doors of historic sites that served as the meeting places for those who would design a movement that would change the world. The city is celebrating the golden anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott with black-tie galas and re-enactments, but the full story of the boycott and its impact is being told by residents and others who have converged on the city to celebrate. Birmingham native Lily May Cheney(ph) is one of those people. She was sitting at a luncheon waiting to hear a speech from Illinois Senator Barack Obama when she told me she vividly remembered the sign that would racially divide the bus and how she often saw that sign move to accommodate white riders when they needed more seats. She also said she knew it was a sign from God to send Mrs. Parks to spark the movement.

Just a few tables away sat Robert Beasley, the historian of First Baptist Church in Montgomery. He told me about the quiet resolve that black residents had while going through the hardships of the boycott. He said with pride, `We were ready for it.'

Just minutes before he took the stage, Senator Obama said to me that there was a direct line from the men and women who in spite of many odds refused to ride the buses for 381 days to his ascension to one of the most coveted seats in the political world. Then there was 26-year-old Ieta Brown(ph) who was steeped in the history of the civil rights movement. She suggested through a bit of youthful naivete that she wasn't as meek as those in the 1950s and she would not have stood for what they put up with.

Then there was my conversation with the namesake son of former governor George Wallace, who wanted to make sure that people remembered that his father had changed his thinking before his death and that the man who personified segregation in Alabama was repentant for his racist views.

There seemed to be a lot of white guilt to be forgiven this week, but there was one sentiment that was shared by almost everyone I talked with, no matter what the gender, race, or generation. Most everyone admitted that the goal of total equality has not yet been met. Gary Griffin(ph), who was 11 when the boycott started, said until things are truly equal, the marching must continue and the dream must not die.

We take you out today with a song that became one of the biggest anthem movement songs of the era. First performed and written by the late great Sam Cooke, the song is "A Change Is Gonna Come."

(Soundbite of "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Mr. SAM COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent, oh, and just like the river, I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come. Oh, yes, it will.

(Credits)

GORDON: To listen to the program, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Mr. COOKE: (Singing) I know a change is gonna come. Oh, yes, it will. I go to the movie and I go down South...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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