Unsung Heroes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Unsung Heroes of the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Professor Charles Payne of Duke University discusses the unsung heroes of the Montgomery bus boycott. Rosa Parks' arrest 50 years ago for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man may have sparked the civil rights movement, but many others worked outside the spotlight to push the movement forward.
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
For more about unsung heroes of the Montgomery bus boycott, we're joined by Professor Charles Payne. He teaches African-American studies, history and sociology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and he's the author of several books, including "I've Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle."
Professor Payne, thanks for coming on.
Professor CHARLES PAYNE (Duke University): Oh, thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: So you just heard this profile of Claudette Colvin. What more can you tell us about her?
Prof. PAYNE: I'd say two things about her. One, I think it's important for people to know that, at the age of 15, she was a member of the Montgomery NAACP youth group, which means she wasn't just a kid who got in trouble on the bus that day; she was actively thinking about ways to make a difference at that age. The other point I would make is that--concerning why her case did not go forward. One of the other issues that civil rights organizers were concerned with is that the people who had witnessed the incident were clearly afraid to testify, and it wasn't clear what would happen if they were on trial and pressure was put on them.
CHIDEYA: So besides Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, tell us who else is important to remember from the bus boycott era or from the boycott itself.
Prof. PAYNE: As opposed to a person, in one sense, the answer is really the black women of Montgomery, collectively, because that's really where the idea of the bus boycott seems to have come from. The organization that was most involved was called the Women's Political Caucus. Think of it as a black version of the League of Women Voters, formed in 1940, about 300 women--probably the best organized civic organization in Montgomery in the early 1950s. The president was Jo Ann Robinson. She was a professor of English at the time at Alabama State College. She had moved to Montgomery in 1949, and had barely gotten there when a bus driver humiliated her, cursed her out, threw her off the bus. So she became a member, and then the president, of the Women's Political Caucus.
And for the caucus, then, this treatment of Negro women and children on the buses was their particular issue. Other organizations had voter registration and other things, but the bus issue was their issue. In 1953, for example, they took--they had about 300 complaints from people about their treatment on the buses, ranging from being cursed to being beaten. They met, lobbied; the mayor--met regularly with the mayor about the bus issue. And they...
CHIDEYA: Let me just ask you something about that. How do you think these women were received by the white officials who they tried to petition about this problem?
Prof. PAYNE: Initially, you know, with Southern courtesy. They actually got some small concessions, all right? They got buses to stop more frequently in black communities. They got bus drivers, very temporarily, to stop cursing black passengers--until they announced that they were thinking about a boycott, all right?--which happened in May of 1954 when Jo Ann Robinson--this is a year and a half before the boycott actually happened.
Prof. PAYNE: Jo Ann Robinson wrote the mayor a letter saying, in effect, `We're getting tired of these small steps. If something doesn't happen, we are thinking about boycotting the buses.' From that point on, the treatment they got from city hall and other officials was much less polite.
CHIDEYA: And let me ask you more about what Montgomery was like at that time. We all have seen images of white students booing and throwing tomatoes at black students trying to integrate colleges and elementary schools. How often was it that a white resident of Montgomery would stick their neck out, or was that pretty much unheard of...
Prof. PAYNE: Oh, that wasn't...
CHIDEYA: ...to support civil rights?
Prof. PAYNE: ...unheard of. I can't give you an estimate, but there were certainly several white people who wrote letters supporting the boycott to the Montgomery Advertiser, the largest newspaper in town. There were others who did not want to support it openly, but did things behind the scene, and there were others who were dramatically involved. Reverend Graetz, the head of Trinity Lutheran Church, was white, was deeply involved throughout the--he was harassed. His home was attacked.
The most tragic case--and the largely forgotten case--is probably a young white woman named Juliette Morgan. She was a librarian. She wrote a letter to the Montgomery Advertiser soon after the boycott began that simply said this was a human issue, it was an issue of human dignity, and Montgomery ought to reconsider the issue of segregation. And she caught holy hell. Her job was threatened, her life was threatened; she began receiving threatening phone calls at all hours of the night. Several months this went on. She was socially ostracized. For several months this went on, at the end of which she committed suicide.
CHIDEYA: Wow. How has Montgomery--final question; we don't have much time. How has Montgomery embraced a multiracial present and future? Do you think that this town, so changed by these events, has evolved?
Prof. PAYNE: Well, I mean, it's hard for me to say. I mean, what I think we can generally say is that the Deep South, because of the movement of the '40s, which is the way to say it--the '40s, '50s and '60s--the Deep South has raised the level of its race relations to the level of the rest of the country. All right?
CHIDEYA: And how far we yet have to do as a nation is another question.
Prof. PAYNE: Is a very large question.
CHIDEYA: We're going to have to leave it there. Charles Payne teaches African-American studies, history and sociology at Duke University. He's the co-author of the book "Debating the Civil Rights Movement."
Professor Payne, thanks so much for joining us.
Prof. PAYNE: I thank you.
CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.
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