A Look Back On Montgomery Bus Boycott — And What It Says About The Future
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Sixty years ago today on December 5, 1955, a group of Americans in Montgomery, Ala., began a bold protest that would change history. The Montgomery bus boycott was sparked by the arrest of seamstress Rosa Parks for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger. Following her arrest, African-Americans protested the segregated seating by boycotting buses for more than a year. That eventually led to a Supreme Court decision ending legal and forced segregation on public transportation. NPR's Michel Martin was in Montgomery earlier this week to commemorate the boycott. In cooperation with member station WVAS, she led a panel about the history and future of civil rights. This is an excerpt from the opening half of the discussion.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: And now I'd like to introduce our panelists. And, of course, they need no introduction - or rather, no introduction could do them justice but we will try. Taylor Branch is an historian and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "America In The King Years," a trilogy of books about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Era. Taylor Branch, welcome.
MARTIN: Your own Gwendolyn Boyd - she is the president of Alabama State University, her alma mater.
MARTIN: Her career has been a series of firsts. She's the first woman president of ASU; she was also appointed last year to President Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. Gwendolyn Boyd, we're so glad to have you. Thank you.
MARTIN: Representing the next generation of activists, Ebony Howard is a civil rights litigator with the Southern Poverty Law Center. The youngest managing attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in her work - that's right.
MARTIN: She has a particular focus on youth and schools. Ebony Howard, we are so glad to have you with us.
MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Robert Graetz served as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church here in Montgomery when the bus boycott began. It was his first appointment as senior pastor, and he was also a friend of Rosa Parks. Rev. Graetz, we are so glad to have you with us here.
MARTIN: Taylor Branch, we're going to ask you to set the table for us as you do so well. What are some of the issues that led to the boycott in 1955? Just tell us a little bit about the context for all of this?
TAYLOR BRANCH: The country was in a tremendous fix over the perpetual contradiction between slavery and American freedom. You had just had the Brown decision a year before in which eight white justices had said segregation was incompatible with American freedom. But nothing really had happened yet, except that the South had risen up against the ruling. And just a few months before the bus boycotts started, you had the Emmett Till lynching - a young man, roughly the same age as many of the activists who would later start the sit-ins and freedom rides, born in 1940, lynched at 14-years-old. So you had this contradiction that America was idealistic and yet raw and evasive on race.
MARTIN: All right, well, thank you, Taylor Branch. Rev. Graetz, you are the only one on this stage who was an adult at the time of the boycott and participated. Did you know what you were getting into?
ROBERT GRAETZ: Had no idea.
MARTIN: I remember reading an interview with you where you said that you had heard that somebody had been arrested and you didn't know that it was your good friend Rosa Parks. How did that happen?
GRAETZ: Well, of course, keep in mind that I was white back then.
MARTIN: Duly noted.
GRAETZ: So that when the phone calls were made to all the black pastors in Montgomery, nobody called me.
GRAETZ: They dared not trust me because I was white. And they had had this lifelong experience of being betrayed by one white person after another, so nobody would share that with me. I got a call from a friend of ours - a young black Lutheran pastor - he said, I understand somebody was arrested on one of the buses, what do you know about it? I said, I don't know but I'll find out. I've got somebody who surely will know - called up Mrs. Parks on the phone. I understand that somebody's been arrested on one of the buses.
MARTIN: And she said?
GRAETZ: She said, that's right, Pastor Graetz. You know anything about it? Yes, Pastor Graetz.
GRAETZ: Do you know who was arrested? Yes, Pastor Graetz. Well, who was it? And there was a little silence and this small voice said, it was me, Pastor Graetz.
MARTIN: Gwendolyn Boyd, what do you remember about those days? You were just a baby.
GWENDOLYN BOYD: I was a baby.
BOYD: So remembering the details of all that happened - but I grew up blocks from here, observing the segregation. The signs were there when I was growing up - colored only, white only - but it doesn't settle in to your spirit until you are a little bit more mature. Another part of growing up is understanding the defiance of the community - that we will stand up for justice and honesty and integrity and truth. And so having grown up in the heat of all of this, you lived in a community that knew that it was time. And so Montgomery was made for this moment. Mrs. Parks was not the first. But she was the one made for the moment.
MARTIN: Ebony Howard, I understand that some of this history is, in part, what made you want to become a lawyer. Is that true?
EBONY HOWARD: That's definitely true. Like the people who came before me, I've always felt a calling to this work. I am aware of so many people who gave their lives, who sacrificed, who could've just been quiet. But then I'm also aware of the people who had to say something. And I count myself as someone who is a descendent of those people. And so from a very early age, I was very fortunate to be aware of my history and to be aware of the sacrifices that so many people made for civil rights in this country. And then I went to Howard University - Alabama State is great - Howard University is also exceptional.
BOYD: (Laughter) I went there, too.
HOWARD: Awesome. And while I was there, I banded with other students who were all searching for how to continue this movement. We knew a lot about our history, but we saw so many injustices that were still happening. We saw children who were being pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system. We saw facilities where black men and women have been jailed. Their chances for positive life outcomes have been drastically slashed. And so I felt like if Dr. King and every other hero from the civil rights movement put their life on the line, then that's the least I could to do is to step up, and it's what I'll always do.
NEARY: That was Michel Martin, regular weekend host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, at her Montgomery bus boycott event earlier this week. You can hear the discussion in its entirety at NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.