CHAPTER 22. LIFE IN MONTGOMERY
In Montgomery, most blacks were afraid. Rosa Parks (1992:72) wrote that "Those who were in good favor with the white folks didn't want to lose their privileged position. The rest didn't think anything could be done. There really wasn't any activist, public civil-rights movement that masses of people participated in until the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Until then only a few people were activists, and of course they were not in good favor with the whites." Parks (p. 136) added that "So many influential blacks in the South were so conservative. They had accepted favors from the white people and didn't want to offend them. We found that over and over in our voter-registration drives. Some of the biggest names in the African-American community were not registered to vote."
Political activist Jo Ann Robinson (1987:39) seconded this observation. There were some sixty-eight black organizations in Montgomery, but "Nobody came forth with a time-to-act' suggestion. People had everything to lose and nothing to gain, some of them felt. And fighting City Hall' was a task nobody had done before, especially fighting to integrate city transportation lines."
On the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott there were only 500 members in the local NAACP (Yeakey 1979:62). And the regular attendees only numbered between ten and fifteen. In other words, the NAACP was weak, impotent, and ineffective. As Parks (1992:115) said "Membership was kind of small, and you could hardly get people to join."
The City of Montgomery did not provide a black high school until 1938, and it was not until 1946 that the school had its own building (Yeakey 1979:53). There was no black newspaper in Montgomery. But between the network of churches and social clubs, almost every black in the city had a vehicle for keeping abreast of important events.
Unlike some large southern cities, Montgomery maintained a rigid pattern of bus segregation. The bus drivers carried guns and even had police power to rearrange seating. In 1945, Alabama passed a law requiring that all bus companies under its jurisdiction actually enforce segregation.
On several occasions Rosa Parks (1992:136) resisted getting off the bus after violating various segregation rules. She would almost always hear mumbling from her fellow blacks: "How come she don't go around and get in the back?" "I remember having discussions about how a boycott of the city buses would really hurt the bus company in its pocketbook. But I also remember asking a few people if they would be willing to stay off the buses to make things better for us, and them saying that they had too far to go to work. So it didn't seem as if there would be much support for a boycott."
Most Influential Black Leaders vis-à-vis the Whites
Montgomery black leadership was dominated, as always in the Jim Crow era from the late 1890s to 1954, by conservative black leaders. What little liberal showing there was came from such Northern-based organizations as the NAACP, but in the South even the NAACP was small and limited in impact.
In Montgomery for three decades H. C. Trenholm was the "token leader." A moderate in politics, Trenholm was the black selected most often by whites to represent the black community. He preferred a low profile and worked behind the scenes in meetings with white leaders. Through years of experience he had learned to humble himself before white men, many of who were his intellectual inferiors. He could even "beg".
P. M. Blair (Yeakey 1979:81- 82) was the "prestige leader." He tended to avoid controversy. He had many contacts with white organizations, but he stuck to noncontroversial areas of business or welfare. There were black "yes" men who did "favors" for whites and got favors back. Blair was known to Montgomery whites as the city's "black mayor." Many of the yes men were black businessmen whose businesses could be closed at anytime by the whites and they often cooperated with whites in order to keep their businesses open (Robinson 1987:85).
A Black Leader Freer of the Whites: Edgar Nixon
Edgar Nixon was born in 1899, the fifth of eight children to Reverend Wesley M. Nixon, an untrained Baptist preacher (Baldwin and Woodson 1992:2). His wife died and Edgar's father had to be away for long periods at a time and so the children would often live with their father's sister, Pinky, who lived in Autauga County, Alabama.
Their father remarried and had nine more children (Baldwin and Woodson 1992:2). They were forced to live with their Aunt Pinky full-time. Formally, Edgar obtained only a third grade education because he had to work, but he was able to teach himself a great deal. He went to work for himself at age fourteen. In 1923 he became a baggage porter for a railroad station and in 1924 at the age of twenty-five became a Pullman Porter.
In 1925 a black man named A. Philip Randolph began to help organize black Pullman Porters (Pfeffer 1990:23). The first meeting of the BSCP in New York was held on August 25, 1925. In 1928 Nixon heard Randolph speak, joined the brotherhood, and became a Randolph disciple. Nixon himself, like Randolph was very influenced by the ideas of socialism. He called Randolph "the greatest black man in history." Nixon said "When I heard Randolph speak it was like a light. He done more to bring me in the fight for civil rights than anybody. Before that time, I figure that a Negro would be kicked around and accept whatever the white man did. I never knew the Negro had a right to enjoy freedom like everyone else. When Randolph stood there and talked that day, it made a different man of me. From that day on, I was determined that I was gonna fight for freedom until I was able to get some of it myself."
Nixon became convinced that the BSCP could become one of the principal civil rights organizations in the country (Baldwin and Woodson 1992:30-31&36-37). In 1938 Nixon founded the Montgomery Division of the BSCP and served as its president for the next twenty-five years. The BSCP became Alabama's first successful black union. It was largely due to the backing of BSCP that Nixon had the freedom and independence to become a somewhat forceful leader. The influence of the BSCP declined, however, as the continuing advance of the automobile and the continuing decline of the railroads was led to a decline of BSCP membership. By the end of 1952, the Montgomery BSCP was nearly bankrupt and by 1955 the organization was down to only nine members. In November 1955 the BSCP combined the Montgomery and Birmingham chapters.
In the 1930s Nixon joined Myles Horton of Tennesse's Highlander Folk School in an attempt to organize Alabama's cucumber pickers in a union (Egerton 1994:159). Horton's ambition, when he returned to the South early in the fall of 1932, was to establish an institution of education and social activism for working-class adults in the mountains of Appalachia. The Highlander Folk School emphasized unionism, democracy, and Christian socialism (Baldwin and Woodson 1992:29). The Higlander Folk School got its start when Horton and Don West leased a house and two hundred acres near Monteagle, Tennessee. Horton had picked up the support of such men as Abram Nightingale, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Harry F. Ward, sociologist Robert E. Park, socialist Norman Thomas, and Sherwood Eddy. Highlander, however, did not aggressively challenge racial segregation in the thirties since their main customers were mostly white laboring people (Egerton 1994:158-159 & 160-161).
When violations of human rights occurred, the victims involved would telephone Mr. Nixon, and he would go to their rescue (Robinson 1987:28). In fact, anytime a black citizen was arrested in the city and had no one to bail them out they could call Mr. Nixon. Later Vernon Johns was to accompany Nixon on some of these emergency runs.
Rosa Parks went to Miss White's school which is now part of Booker T. Washington High School. For grades ten and eleven she went to the laboratory school at Alabama Normal School part of what was then called Alabama State Teachers' College for Negroes (later Alabama State University).
Her family moved from Huffman Street to South Union Street, where they stayed with King Kelly, who was a deacon of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Mr. Kelly and his wife were very much against the type of thing Parks was doing (organizing), because Kelly worked for a men's clothing store in Montgomery as what was called a man of all work and was afraid of losing his job.
Rosa Parks made only twenty-three dollars a week as a seamstress at the men's alteration department of the Montgomery Fair, a large department store in downtown Montgomery (Durr 1985:278). Mrs. Parks's husband worked as a barber and he was sometimes sick and unemployed. They lived in a housing project with her mother, who kept house for them.
Rosa Parks met Edgar Nixon in 1943 and was very impressed. Before Rosa Parks' arrest, Nixon had tried to desegregate Montgomery's buses, but had lacked the proper candidate to set the campaign in motion.
Disunity of Leadership
When Matin Luther King, Jr. (1958:34) came to Montgomery he found several problems as regards black organizations and leadership:
1. An appalling lack of unity among the leaders. The several civic groups were at loggerheads with each other. E. D. Nixon headed the Progressive Democrats; Rufus Lewis led the Citizens Committee; and Mrs. Mary Fair Burks and Jo Ann Robinson led the Women's Political Council.
2 The community was crippled by the indifference of the educated group. This indifference expressed itself in a lack of participation in any move toward better racial conditions, and a sort of tacit acceptance of things as they were. "Some of this lack of concern had its basis in fear. Many of the educated group were employed in vulnerable positions, and a forthright stand in the area of racial justice might result in the loss of a job. So rather than jeopardize their economic security, many steered clear of any move toward altering the status quo. But too much of the inaction was due to sheer apathy. Even in areas -- such as voting -- where they would not really be accused of tampering with the established order, the educated group had an indifference that for a period appeared incurable." The apparent apathy of the Negro ministers presented a special problem. Far too many had remained aloof from the area of social responsibility.
3. The apparent passivity of the majority of the uneducated. While there were always some who struck out against segregation, the largest number accepted it without protest.
Events in the White Liberal Community in Montgomery
Clifford Durr moved to Birmingham about 1924 and got a job with Martin, Thompson, and Stern, the firm that represented the Alabama Power Company. The Durr family were originally from Montgomery. The family was Presbyterian, and they would invite Rev. Foster of Birmingham to stay with them when he came to Montgomery to preach and attend to church business. Rev. Foster's daughter, Virginia Foster, married Clifford Durr in 1926. At that time her brother-in-law Hugo Black was running for the Senate. He won. Virginia Durr led the life of a young married woman in Birmingham. She was active in the Junior League and in the church and belonged to a bridge club and a sewing circle and made clothes for her daughter. But she began little by little to wake up to the world. Slowly she became aware of how bad conditions were for so many people in Birmingham.
In 1933 the Durr family moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived throughout the New Deal years. A series of personal calamities (especially tied to suspicions that they were communists) forced the family to move back to Montgomery in 1951, on the eve of the civil rights struggle.
Aubrey Williams had made quite a name for himself in Washington, particularly for his work on the National Youth Administration, and he was very well thought of by the New Dealers (Durr 1985:246). He had been nominated for appointment by President Roosevelt to the Rural Electrification Administration. He was opposed and did not get the job. Williams came to Montgomery, and bought a farm paper called the Southern Farmer. Williams was soon to become one of the foremost liberal advocates of social change in his native region (Egerton 1994:100). Williams lent E. D. Nixon the money to keep the NAACP going (Durr 1985:250). He was also trying to organize an integrated farmers' union. He was also a great friend of Jim Folsom.
After leaving Washington, Clifford Durr opened his law office in Montgomery. Through E. D. Nixon and Aubrey Williams, Durr began getting cases of blacks who had been beaten up in jail or who had been charged 500 percent interest on loans. Durr had a noblesse oblige attitude towards blacks. Virginia Durr (1985: 243 & 251) wrote that Cliff was brought up to believe that a Southern gentleman never took advantage of a black man. The black man had his place and the white man had his place. But to cheat a black man or to take advantage of his ignorance was "common". Virginia wrote that it shocked the naive Cliff when he found that white men in Montgomery were taking advantage of poor, ignorant blacks who couldn't even sign their names. "It made him ashamed that they acted the way they did, and he felt a slight contempt for them."
The Durrs liked Edgar Nixon (Durr 1985:252). Once in the post office Virginia Durr said hello to Nixon and tried to shake his hand. Nixon told her not to call him Ed. He said it could get him lynched. "You ought to have better sense than to come up to a black man in the public post office and say 'Hello, Ed' and put out your hand."
Around the time that King started working with the NAACP the Alabama Council on Human Relations also caught his attention. This interracial group was concerned with human relations in Alabama. Its basic philosophy recognized that all men are created equal under God. The president of the Council was Rev. Ray Wadley, the young white minister of St. Mark's Methodist Church. A native Southerner, he was later shifted to a small, backwoods community after his congregation protested his activities in the field of race relations. Two other prominent white members of the Council were Revs. Thomas P. Thrasher and Robert Graetz, both of whom were to be prominent in the subsequent bus boycott struggle.
Rev. Graetz (1991:3) worked with blacks in Montgomery. He said that "The police force represented the front line of the white segregationist army. In earlier times, business and professional men put on their white robes and hoods and rode out as the KKK, using whatever violence ... But that kind of illegal activity was no longer tolerated, at least not officially. Nowadays the task of controlling Negroes was entrusted to the legally constituted constabulary."
Graetz (1991:21) described how the segregation laws were not only a burden to the blacks, but also to the whites for the whites themselves were forced to live by the rules of segregation. He also noted that there was an underground network of "liberals" who maintained close contact with each other.
He pointed that the North cooperated with Southern segregation. "Church officials stressed that my primary tasks were to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to serve my people. The South is not receptive to intruders from the North,' they explained. You will bring harm to yourself and your family, not to mention the congregation and the church at large, if you go to Montgomery crusading for racial justice.'" He had to assure them that he would not start any trouble. As soon as the congregation realized a minister was a "liberal,"' a truly pejorative term, the minister was asked to move on."
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