NICK DANLAG – STAFF WRITER
On Keisha N. Blain’s darkest days, she remembers the stories of average citizens, those who came together to overcome great struggles. She remembers Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Sojourner Truth.
“Their ideas and strategies offer guidance, and perhaps more importantly, their stories provide valuable lessons in resilience,” Blain said.
She also remembers Rosa Parks. The mainstream story of Parks is often told like this: a weary old woman refuses to give up her seat on a bus because she is tired, and her act, alone, spurs on a movement to desegregate buses.
This telling, Blain said, is wrong.
“In this framing, we miss the richer story of the boycott and how it was made possible by the perseverance of thousands of ordinary Black residents in Montgomery,” Blain said.
Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and the president of the African American Intellectual History Society. She is the editor, along with Ibram X. Kendi, of Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, a “community history” volume representing 400 years of Black American experiences. At 10:30 a.m. Aug. 25 in the Amphitheater, Blain presented her lecture, titled “Resilience and Black History,” as part of the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Nine’s theme of “Resilience.” Blain explored the under-told stories of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, from 15-year-old Claudette Colvin to Martin Luther King Jr., and the lingering legacies of Jim Crow and other discriminatory systems.
Montgomery, Alabama, was deeply segregated in the 1950s. While 35% of the voting population was Black, only 3% of the Black population was registered to vote. Blain said this was by white society’s design.
“These figures were only possible because of Jim Crow,” Blain said. “White people in Montgomery went to great lengths to keep Black people out of the ballot box, recognizing the enormous power of the vote to shape and, indeed, change American society.”
Transportation was just as deeply segregated. According to the city code, bus drivers were given the same power as police officers to make a clear divide of Black and white people on public transportation, and were allowed to carry weapons. After World War II, the rate of bus drivers assaulting Black people rose significantly.
In 1944, a Black woman, Viola White, refused to give up her seat and was arrested. When White tried to sue the city, the police resorted to intimidation and violence, to a point that a Montgomery police officer raped her 16-year-old daughter. After White’s constant complaints to the police chief, the officer received a warning.
“White passed away without receiving any kind of justice,” Blain said.
In 1945, two Black women in their Women Army Corps uniforms were attacked and verbally assaulted by a bus driver after they refused to move for a white man. In 1951, a bus driver insulted a Black woman named Espi Worthy. After she exited the bus, he followed her and hit her on the street. When the police arrived, Worthy was arrested.
Six months before the boycott, in 1955, Lucille Times was driving down the street when a bus driver tried to push her off the road three times with his bus. The same bus driver would later have Parks arrested. Times pulled over, and the bus driver attacked her. A police officer intervened by hitting Times in the neck with his flashlight, knocking her to the ground. The officer treated Times as the perpetrator and, Blain said, “let her off with a warning.”
She and her husband then staged a boycott of city buses, and offered free rides to other bus-goers, later joining the larger Montgomery Bus Boycott.
“These are just a few examples of what Black people enjoyed while riding on buses in Montgomery, and in other parts of the South,” Blain said.
In 1950, Jo Ann Robinson, a teacher who would later be a professor of English at Alabama State University, became the president of the Women’s Political Council. The Women’s Political Council addressed the mistreatment of African Americans in the city and grew to 300 members and three chapters in the first few months.
Robinson had her own painful experiences with the city buses. Within months of moving to Montgomery, she was asked to move to the back of an empty bus. When she refused, Blain said, the driver went up to her in a “threatening manner.”
Robinson and the council helped catalogue hundreds of complaints from the community and sent a letter to the mayor with three demands on May 21, 1954. If these demands were not met, 25 organizations across the city promised to boycott all city buses. The first demand was to change seating practices so that Black passengers did not have to change seats for white passengers.
The second was a change in paying practices. During that time, Black passengers had to enter the bus at the front, pay the driver and then leave to enter the doors in the back. It was common practice for bus drivers to drive off after Black passengers paid and went to enter the back door. The third demand was more buses running routes through Black communities.
These issues made headlines before Rosa Parks’ arrest. At 15 years old, Claudette Colvin would not move after a white woman did not want to sit across from her. She was arrested for disturbing the peace, breaking segregation laws and assaulting a police officer.
The judge dismissed the first charges against Colvin, but tried to convict her for assaulting a police officer.
“Montgomery’s Black residents were upset over the conviction,” Blain said. “Some local civil rights leaders started to worry about Colvin’s ability to be the center of a long campaign to challenge segregation. Their concerns only grew when they learned that Colvin was pregnant.”
The local civil rights leaders, Blain said, decided to move on because they feared Colvin’s personal life would distract from the larger issues.
“She was an example of someone who didn’t fit neatly within the narrative,” Blain said. “She was pushed aside, at least publicly. It is important, though, to know that even though many people shunned her because of her teenage pregnancy, Rosa Parks was one of the individuals who remained a supporter of hers.”
The movement found its answer, however, when Parks was arrested on Dec. 1, 1955.
“We all know the story of Rosa Parks,” Blain said. “What is often less emphasized, however, is her background as an activist in Montgomery.”
In the early 1930s, Parks was involved in a case in which a group of Black teenagers in Scottsboro were falsely accused of raping two white women. Later, she became the secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, where she collected testimonies from residents about racial harassment, violence and sexual assault, as well as investigating the gang rape at gunpoint of 24-year-old Recy Taylor, a Black, married mother of three, by six white men.
So on that day in December, Blain said, Parks was certainly tired from a long day of work, but “such an explanation would be far too simplistic.”
“She was, in fact, tired of the mistreatment of Black people,” Blain said. “Her decades-long work as an activist had prepared her for the moment she refused to give up her seat. She knew she would need to be resilient in the face of resistance if she ever hoped to see anything change. And she was not alone.”
In the aftermath of Parks’ arrest, Robinson met with the Women’s Political Council and printed 35,000 copies of short leaflets, explaining the situation and the plan for a city-wide bus boycott. A vast majority of Black Montgomery citizens joined the movement.
“Perhaps, they imagined it would take a few days or even a few weeks. Many assumed that the city leadership would quickly cave in when they realize how much money they will lose to uphold segregation as practices on city buses,” Blain said. “Yet the hold of racism and white supremacy kept the practices firmly in place.”
The boycott lasted 382 days.
“The fact that it managed to go on for so long is a testament to the community’s resilience in the face of resistance,” Blain said. “It is a testament to what can happen when people are determined and unified in the effort to dismantle systems of oppression.”
The grassroots organizers created 40 carpool stations around the city, while leaders of the movement met stiff resistance from city officials, who downplayed Black people’s concerns, even when bus drivers were laid off due to lack of business. Thousands of Black residents went to churches to support each other.
Black women were a key part of the community’s resilience, from fundraising around $3,000 a week to fund the carpools, helping organize 15,000 to 20,000 rides a day, walking miles to work and facing harassment from bus drivers and police officers, who gave carpool drivers a significant number of tickets to pressure them to end the boycott.
Authorities also arrested and indicted 89 leaders of the boycott, including Parks, Robinson and King. White supremacists targeted Parks and her husband, and they later lost their jobs. King’s house was also bombed during this time.
And after 382 days, the boycotters were victorious. On June 5, 1956, the U.S. District Court in Montgomery ruled that the bus practices violated the 14th Amendment, and that ruling was later supported by the Supreme Court. So on Dec. 20, 1956, the boycott ended successfully.
“More than 60 years later, we still have much to learn from the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” Blain said. “It’s imperative that we remain open to learning, especially considering the state of affairs in the United States. Today, Black Americans continue to face many of the same challenges and mistreatment.”
Blain said this ranges from low access to health care to Black students lagging behind their white peers, “not for lack of talent or ability, but because of decades-long structural inequalities that have impeded their success.”
Black families today have one-tenth of the wealth of white families, and a study in 2018 concluded there is no progress being made on that front.
“These realities are not coincidental. They are by design,” Blain said.
She said also change can seem out of reach and overwhelming to accomplish. People can fight injustices, she said, by working together. Blain said the test of someone’s commitment is not only their willingness to push back against society, but also to wait for change.
“The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott reminds us that if we remain resilient in the fight for social justice, change can and will happen,” Blain said. “I hope that we will never lose sight of this powerful lesson.”
As part of the Q-and-A session, Shannon Rozner, senior vice president of community relations and general counsel, asked Blain what drove the people within the Montgomery Bus Boycott to commit to everyday actions for a long period, and how they did not lose energy.
Blain said her students often tell her how hopeless they feel, and that there seems to be nothing they can do to help the world.
“I always say to them, ‘You are never the only person who sees a particular injustice,’ ” Blain said. “And so you think you’re the only person until you start speaking about it, and then realize other people see it, too.”
She said the key is to find like-minded and equally passionate people who want to collaborate on change.
“I think those are opportunities where you’re able to have the most impactful work — not only because it keeps you connected to other people, which is always important, but then you have others who, at the moment where you begin to doubt, at the moment where you grow discouraged, someone else is able to offer a lending hand.” Blain said.
Some of the most powerful meetings in the churches during the boycotts, Blain said, were when the community discussed their struggles.
“They sang songs together after someone experienced an act of violence and there was so much pain felt by that person, by their family, by the community,” Blain said. “Coming together for several hours and just encouraging others in the struggle made a difference. It gave you a sense of clarity. It gave you a sense that you could keep on fighting the next day.”