American Socialist, April 1956

[Louis Proyect: The ties between the New Deal left and union movements and the burgeoning civil rights movement has yet to be told in the detail it deserves. This article from American Socialist is a step in that direction. Written by novelist Al Maund , author ofThe Boxcar,’who is still alive and in his nineties, he is only described as ‘a prominent Southern journalist and participant in the new movement of the Negro people.’This is understandable since he had just be fired from a college teaching job for writing a pro-civil rights article in the Nation magazine under his own name. It features an interview with E.D. Nixon, the chair of the local NAACP who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail and recruited Martin Luther King Jr. to the struggle. Nixon was a close associate of white attorney Clifford Durr, a New Deal braintruster who sponsored the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where Parks spent some time being trained as an organizer. After Maund was fired, he went to work as a copy editor at Durr's newspaper. When Durr couldn't make a kick-off meeting for the Montgomery bus boycotts, he sent Maund in his place. The Highlander school, which was founded in 1932 and modeled after the Danish folk schools, quickly became a crucial center for young organizers in the south, according to Michael Denning in ‘The Cultural Front’. In addition to Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer and Stokely Carmichael also received training at the school.]

Walking their Way to Freedom

by A Special Correspondent

Montgomery— How does one account for the boycott of city buses carried on for four months by the 40,000 Negro residents of Montgomery, Alabama? Although ‘the Cradle Confederacy’ has grown in recent years. nothing makes it seem other than a sleepy Southern town. No new industries have altered its landscape; it leeches off two air-force bases near the city limits. A venerable family controls the political strings; Negro voters number a pitiful 1,600. The Shinto worship of ancestors as in no other place in the region, except perhaps  S. C., and the Negro community bears the surnames of white aristocracy—symbolizing a racial relation that remained substantially unaltered from slavery days.

Then what happened? Was the boycott an NAACP ‘plot’? Although virtually all of the boycott spokesmen are NAACP members, one has said that the organization ‘looked down’ on the protest at its outset because it did seek integration. The boycotters’ original main demand drafted at a mass meeting the night of December for racial division of passengers on a first-come, first-serve basis. This is the arrangement in effect in most cities.

Two decades of mistreatment provided the fodder for the protest. Every Negro who boarded a bus stood a good chance of being abused. Drivers, under cover of enforcing segregation statutes, constantly yanked up Negro passengers to provide seats for late-coming whites. They passed by Negroes waiting at stops. Negroes were required to pay at the front door and then get on at the rear, so that drivers sometimes took their fares and drove off without them. Drivers even carried pistols in their cash boxes to ‘settle’ disputes over change and transfers. Year after year delegations of Negroes called on city and transit-line officials, asking better treatment. They received nothing, not even a courteous audience, because the white fathers thought that the bulk of the Negro population was hopelessly dependent on transit service. ‘You would think that since we were their best customers, they’d try to please us a little,’ a Negro stenographer commented bitterly. ‘But they wanted it easy. They wanted our money and wanted to beat on us, too. I have just put them out of my mind. I can keep walking forever.’

THE incident that touched off things happened simply and spontaneously. It was not a test case. On the night of December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a seamstress at a Montgomery department store, was returning home from work. She boarded the bus that would take her to the public-housing project where she lived. She was carrying a sack of groceries, bursitis racked her shoulders, and she was dead-tired. She sat near the front of the Negro section. After a few minutes she heard the driver order her to move to the back—where there were no seats vacant. She looked up and saw a white man waiting to claim her place. She didn’t move. The driver again called out. She still didn’t move. The driver then stopped the bus, announcing that he was going for the police. For thirty minutes the passengers remained in the halted vehicle. No one got out, no one—white or Negro—spoke to her. ‘It was the longest time of my life,’ Mrs. Parks recalls. The police came and she was booked for violating the segregation ordinance—although the law specifically states that the driver can only reassign passengers if there are other seats available.

E. D. Nixon, sleeping-car porter who is president of his union local, put up her bond. The following day he summoned the city’s Negro ministers and suggested organizing a mass protest. As former president of the Alabama NAACP and long-time fighter for the right to vote, Nixon had some claim on the consciences of the men of the cloth. And Mrs. Parks, too, was not unknown. For years she had been doing the drab secretarial and dues-collecting chores of keeping an NAACP chapter alive in Montgomery, without thanks or glory. Nixon suggested that Negroes stay off the buses on the day of her trial, scheduled for December 5. The proposal won the enthusiastic approval of the Rev. M. L. King, Jr., 27-year-old native of Atlanta and graduate of Boston University, and he persuaded the others. The following Sunday some twenty ministers passed the idea along to their congregations.

NATURALLY. word leaked out to the white community. Police commissioner Clyde Sellers announced that he was assigning patrolmen to protect would-be passengers against Negro ‘goon squads.’ The newspapers held up to ridicule hand-lettered signs that had been posted in Negro neighborhoods, announcing the boycott. But December 5 found the organizational strength of the Negroes more than equal to the task. The vehicles volunteered to carry commuters covered the range of the social spectrum —-from Cadillacs to battered trucks. Negro-owned taxicabs offered a special rate of a dime a person to any place in the city. Those who walked, walked proudly. The bus line admitted that the protest was 95 percent effective. The spectacle of motorcycle police escorting empty buses provided a vivid proof of the helplessness of white force against the united Negro will. Mrs. Parks was convicted and fined $14, hut the bus company lost more than two thousand dollars that day and was to lose thousands more.

That night, at a meeting originally intended to be a religious close to the activities, some 10,000 Negroes overflowed a church building and shouted their desire to continue until the bus line agreed to change conditions. Nixon called the event ‘the most amazing and the most heartening thing I have seen in my life. The leaders were led. It was a vertical thing.’ A timid, long-suffering, precarious community had found itself. As in most Southern cities, the class structure of Montgomery Negro society consists of a handful of professional men and a mass of unskilled, impoverished workers. Neither business opportunities nor unionization amount to enough to provide a class that bridges these two groups, and the economic interests of potential leaders and potential followers are often at such variance as to stultify collective action. (It should be noted that Southern white society, though generally ‘better off, is also divided sharply, on lines that are as much psychological as economic. A dominant ‘plantation’ attitude and a docile ‘sharecropper’ response defeat attempts to gain such basic civic improvements as paved streets, modern sewage disposal, etc.)

HOWEVER, in the Negro community there is a tradition of organized self-help bred out of the hard necessity of survival. Basically, it amounts to the idea that scavenging for a living can be accomplished better in teams than singly. In Montgomery, when the Negroes provided their own transportation system, they were only behaving toward the transit buses as, on many another occasion, they had been obliged to do for medical care, shelter, and food. Inspired (and perhaps surprised) by the effect their gesture had on a previously indifferent white community, the Negroes declared they were embarking on a campaign of ‘passive resistance.’ As a people they had been passively resisting extinction all their lives; the difference now was that a meaning and a pride had been given their struggle. They have remained solid and unabashed in the face of police harassment, White Citizens Council threats, bombings, and the arrest of 89 leaders under an old anti-boycott law originally intended to smash labor unions.

The Montgomery county grand jury specifically accused Negro ministers of organizing the boycott. Ministers make up a majority of members of the executive board of the Montgomery Improvement Association, which has coordinated strategy and financed a car pool costing  $2,100 a month to operate. The movement is, indeed, a religious movement in all appearances. Boycotters hold meetings twice a week at various churches—gatherings limited in attendance only by the size of the building. Hymn singing and sermons make up most of the program. Such religious emphasis is not surprising in view of  historic relationship of the Negro and his church:

The church is literally the Negro’s only sanctuary in the Deep South. Only here can mass meetings be held without threat of police raid. Only here can rare interracial gatherings take place.

The Montgomery ministers avowedly accepted leadership because it would be harder to bring pressure to bear on them. Ministers are virtually the only Negro professional men who need not depend to some extent on the good will of the white community.

The only language of protest that does not bring harsh retribution from the whites is protest couched in Christian terminology. The Negro, therefore, must  this idiom to air his grievances. Significantly, the choice of hymns at the Montgomery meetings includes: We Shall Not Be Moved, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and a special set of lyrics to Old-Time Religion:

We are moving on to victory
We are moving on to victory
We are moving on to victory
With hope and dignity.
We will all stand together
Until we all are free.
Black and white both are brothers .
To live in harmony

The Negroes have not filed a federal suit challenging the constitutionality of city and state segregation laws, and Mrs. Park’s conviction is being appealed toward the same end. Action against other racial barriers has not been mentioned publicly.

BUT there is a force among the Negroes of Montgomery who looks beyond the immediate goal: E. D. Nixon, a tall, lean, deliberate native son. He declares emphatically, ‘The South will never be free until the Negro to free himself and then set the Southern white man is free.’

How will this be done? Through economic understanding unionization, he says. But he does not claim it will be easy. Negroes generally have not been educated for membership. And on the unions’ side, the national bodies—especially the AFL—have not ‘cleaned house.’ He regrets that Negro members of the railroad brotherhoods did not seize the recent lengthy Louisville & Nashville strike as an opportunity to end the non-voting auxiliaries to which they are consigned. When the Birmingham, Ala., Federation of Teachers withdrew from the national organization because of the latter’s anti-segregationist policy, he tried in vain to get Negro teachers to apply for the charter.

He tells with pride of the Montgomery bricklayers’ where Negroes did obtain the charter and whites were obliged to apply to them for membership. Their meetings and social affairs are unsegregated and union activities proceed smoothly. The all-Negro Amalgamated thing Workers local in Montgomery is giving official support to the boycott. He says he feels ‘sort of a father’ union, since he wrote directly to Walter Reuther to call attention to the workers’ desire to organize. Reuther passed the letter to a regional representative, who in turn mailed Nixon the cards.

Nixon is not impressed by the growth of the White Citizens Councils, nor by their spread among white union members. He cites several racist organizations which had their vogue and ‘then blew up, leaving a few men holding a lot of money.’

But doesn’t the constant cropping-up of these outfits prove that the Southern whites are dead-set in their prejudices? How do you go about setting them free?

‘Show them. Traditions don’t change by themselves, you have to change them,’ he fired back. And he told this story:

‘I was asked to talk before these workers at a creosote plant—a mixed group—where one white man was holding back the drive to get them in the union. I knew about this fellow, that he lived in a cheap house with blocks under it and a privy in the back and a dirt road in the front. His children had to walk a long ways to get to school. So I used it against him. I told him, in front of the audience at the meeting, that if the boss set so much store on his white skin he’d pay him enough to let him live in a decent house in a good neighborhood. Being white ain’t worth a damn when you’re hungry. ‘That fellow got up and he said, ‘Yes, by God, I’ve been the one stopping the union. And I never thought I’d see the day when a black n—-r would convince me to join. Where are the cards?’ That night they got a union.’

NIXON is fairly sanguine about the situation in Alabama. ‘I feel hopeful. ‘this boycott is the best thing that ever happened. It has shown the world what is going on down here. I can’t say what will come of it, but I can say this: I’ve been fighting for twenty years—I’m almost disappointed when a week goes by without getting a threat on my life—but I’ll be fighting still, even if nobody isn’t saying a word but me.’

The example of Montgomery is fermenting the thinking of Negroes all over the South. But if the Montgomery boycotters are not to be worn down through the ‘massive resistance’ of white supremacists, who know very well its potential importance, they must gain reinforcements. And if the Montgomery boycott is to be truly victorious, its participants must be given a glimpse of other goals they can earn. An obvious source of support and inspiration is the national labor movement. Union funds should be made available in substantial amounts. Prominent union speakers should express their willingness to come to Montgomery, if they are invited. And, perhaps more painful to the hierarchy of labor, fruitful efforts must be made to curb the pro-White Citizens Council activities of Alabama unions.

If the union movement does not accept this opportunity to gain the respect and interest of the Negro population of the South, such leaders as E. D. Nixon will not be hurt or discouraged. They have learned to endure. The Negro masses, who never expected anything from ‘white folks’ clubs’ anyway, will keep on taking care of themselves as best they can. And union labels will remain scarcer in the South than Confederate fifty-cent pieces.

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