Episode 9, Season 3
Everyone thinks they know the story, but the real history of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott is even better. This episode details the events that set the stage for Ms. Parks’ civil disobedience. You’ll meet the leaders and organizations who transformed a moment of activism into a 13-month campaign. And you’ll learn about the community that held fast in the face of legal and political attacks, economic coercion, intimidation and violence.
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Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights MovementEdited by Hasan Kwame Jeffries
Own the book from the University of Wisconsin Press that inspired and informs season three of the Teaching Hard History podcast!
- Learning for Justice Lesson, Bus Boycott: Historical Documents Highlight Integration Milestone (grades 3-5, 6-8, 9-12)
- Learning for Justice Webinar, Beyond the Bus: Teaching the Unseen Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
- Learning for Justice Publication, Beyond the Bus
- Learning for Justice Essay, ‘Browder v Gayle’
- Learning for Justice Lesson Riding with Rosa (grades 3-5, 6-8)
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks is the civil rights activist who is taught the most in schools. And other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. she is also the civil rights activist who is mis-taught the most in schools.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: On December 1st, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she sparked a year-long boycott that ended segregated public transportation in the "Heart of Dixie." When this veteran NAACP activist was asked what motivated her, Parks—who was only 42 years old at the time—explained that she was tired of yielding to the dictates of Jim Crow.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And Parks’s activism did not end when the Montgomery bus boycott was over. She continued to fight for African-American freedom rights for several decades, only slowing down when failing health made it impossible for her to do more.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But the Rosa Parks who was a fierce, lifelong, civil rights champion isn’t the Rosa Parks most students learn about. They learn instead about a tired seamstress, who hadn’t thought much about Jim Crow. They learn instead about a quaint old lady who didn’t have a history of activism before sitting down on that bus, and who didn’t have a history of activism after she refused to get up.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ignoring Parks’ rebellious spirit and erasing her history of activism not only distorts her life and legacy but also mangles the movement. Among other things, it overstates the contributions of some while understating the contributions of others.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So how should we teach Rosa Parks? Well, let’s find out.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History. We’re a production of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we’ll be offering a detailed look at how to teach the Black freedom struggle or the US civil rights movement. In each episode we’ll explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: While The Montgomery bus boycott wasn’t the start of the Black freedom struggle, it was a landmark moment in the civil rights movement. This is why it’s important that students have a complete and thorough understanding of what took place. In this episode, historian Emilye Crosby introduces us to a more complex and accurate version of Rosa Parks the person and Rosa Parks the activist. She examines the social and political events leading up to the boycott, the strong community networks and local leaders who transformed that protest moment into a year-long campaign, and how this grassroots movement shaped the leadership of a young Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Also, you will hear historical documents, oral histories and courtroom testimonies brought to life through reenactments of these primary sources. I’m glad you could join us.
Emilye Crosby: The Montgomery bus boycott, what I call the myth of Montgomery, fits the master narrative so well. It's the kind of textbook version, the version that students think they know: this tired old lady, Rosa Parks doesn't give up her seat. She gets arrested. And then immediately Dr. King steps up, leads the bus boycott and you get no sense that this bus boycott takes over a year. They may or may not even know that there's a Supreme Court case involved, but if they do, it reinforces the master narrative of the country moving in the right direction and the major institutions fixing the problems of racism. This kind of reinforces for me why it is so important that students actually analyze primary sources themselves and sort of do the work as historians. I can fill some of this in and I can give them context, but the more they analyze themselves, the more they develop their own interpretations. One, they're developing important skills that they need, but also I think they're actually more likely to believe what they're learning. It's more likely to be meaningful to them. And, you know, I don't want them to simply replace one set of mythologies with what I tell them.
Emilye Crosby: One of the things that I love to do when I'm teaching the Montgomery bus boycott is use a letter from the Women's Political Council of Montgomery, Alabama, that was written May 21st, 1954, to the mayor of Montgomery, W.A. Gayle. And the Women's Political Council wrote this letter about conditions on the buses. They're asking for some changes and threatening a boycott.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: Mayor Gayle, three-fourths of the riders of the public conveyances are Negro. If Negroes did not patronize them, they could not possibly operate. More and more of our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to ride to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: There has been talk from 25 or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses. We, sir, do not feel that forceful measures are necessary in bargaining for conveniences which is right for all bus passengers. We, the council, believe that when this matter has been put before you and the Commissioners, that agreeable terms can be met in a quiet and unostensible manner to the satisfaction of all concerned.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: Many of our Southern cities in neighboring states have practiced the policies we seek without incident whatsoever. Atlanta, Macon and Savannah in Georgia have done this for years. Even Mobile in our own state does this, and all passengers are satisfied.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: Please consider this plea, and if possible act favorably upon it, for even now plans are being made to ride less or not at all on our buses. We do not want this. Respectfully yours, The Women's Political Council, Jo Ann Robinson, President.
Emilye Crosby: So one of the things that students can very quickly learn from this letter is that the issues on the bus weren't quite as simple as Black people being forced to sit in the back of the bus. And this letter was written about 18 months before the bus boycott starts. So it tells us that there's concern about the issues on the buses long before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Students are so conditioned, or they so much expect that the issues of the movement are integration, opposing segregation. So they assume that. And so even when the letter doesn't really say anything about that, they kind of go there anyway. So we'll work through it. We actually walk through what are the specific things that the Women's Political Council's asking for.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: Dear Sir, The Women's Political Council is very grateful to you and the City Commissioners for the hearing you allowed our representatives during the month of March, 1954, when the city bus fare increase case was being reviewed.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: There were several things that Council asked for: 1. A city law that would make it possible for Negroes to sit from back toward front and the whites from front toward back until all seats are taken.
Emilye Crosby: So they're asking for a city law to eliminate the common situation of empty seats in the white section with many African Americans standing. So you'll have crowds of African Americans standing on top of each other in the back of the bus and empty seats that they can't use. And in the case of Rosa Parks, she was actually sitting in a part of the bus that they called "No man's land." It was neither the white section nor the Black section. You know, a lot of people say she was sitting in the white section, but she wasn't. She was sitting in a place that African Americans were allowed to sit. But once the driver asked her to give that seat up, in theory, she had to give that seat up.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: 2. That Negroes not be asked or forced to pay fare at front and go to the rear of the bus to enter.
Emilye Crosby: And so a lot of times that'll really catch my students’ attention. "What?" And so I'll act it out. Like, you know, you're getting on the bus, you know, you pay your money, you're dropping your coins in. And instead of continuing on and finding a seat, you have to get off, walk around to the back, step up and onto the bus. And that's if you're lucky. Sometimes the bus driver will drive away and leave you.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: 3. That buses stop at every corner in residential sections occupied by Negroes as they do in communities where whites reside. We are happy to report that buses have begun stopping at more corners now in some sections where Negroes live than previously. However, the same practices in seating and boarding the bus continue.
Emilye Crosby: So basically, stop with the same level of frequency so African Americans don't have to walk further to catch the bus or after they get off the bus. And so once we've gone through these specifics, I say again to my students, "So what's this about?" Well, they're asking for what some people called at the time, a quote, "More humane form of segregation." It's not about integration, at least at this point when this letter is written. The issue is really extreme mistreatment. They're being brutalized on the buses. They're called all kinds of racist names, but they're also physically attacked.
Emilye Crosby: I will also assign other primary sources with this letter. And there are some wonderful primary sources that come from court testimony, and they provide a lot of detail about what conditions on the buses are like that really brings it to life what's so awful about the buses. And so when the students read the primary sources, they'll read accounts of people like a veteran, he was blinded during World War Two. He and his wife are going to the VA hospital. He's stepping off the bus, the driver catches his foot in the door and pulls away, dragging him along the street. Another example: a bus driver wouldn't let a man on the bus. He said he was drunk. The driver calls the police. The police come and actually shoot and kill the man on the bus.
Emilye Crosby: What does the Women's Political Council say might happen if the mayor and city commission don't address the concerns? As Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, the president of the Women's Political Council points out, three-fourths of the riders are Negroes. So she's threatening the economic ramifications if Black people boycott the buses. Not only are they talking about the possibility of a boycott, but they're pointing out that there are already people who are boycotting on their own. "More and more of our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to ride, to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers." So there's sort of an informal or a person-by-person boycott.
Emilye Crosby: You've also got the fact that there's actually at least 25 or more organizations in the community that are concerned about bus issues and considering a boycott. So this letter is from one organization, but they're talking about an issue that is of concern to many people and organizations that go beyond them. So in terms of the things that I want students to get out of it, one is how long people in Montgomery have been actively working on this issue, the extent to which it's an issue that is of interest to many people in the community, and that there are a lot of organizations that are interested in or already working on it. The fact that it's not about the things that they might assume, it's not about integration, and that the issues of segregation are really about serious mistreatment, a real abuse of power.
Emilye Crosby: As you use the letter as a starting place and add more and more pieces of the history, it continues to go in an almost completely opposite direction of what they assume. And in my experience, students get really excited about this, and angry about a feeling that they've been misled, and really open to learning something different.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season of Teaching Hard History is based on the book Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement—recipient of the 2020 James Harvey Robinson prize for the most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history, from the American Historical Association. And this podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this collection of essays, which I edited. From now until the end of the year, they are offering a 30 percent discount to listeners who order this collection. You’ll find a link to purchase the book at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Just use the promotional code: CIVILRIGHTS—all one word. Now let’s continue our conversation with Emilye Crosby.
Emilye Crosby: I think a lot of people think they know who Rosa Parks is, but of course the picture that they have of her is a very kind of flat one. She's just a kind of a passive prop in somebody else's story. She doesn't give up her seat and then this boycott launches around her. And the reality, of course, is a much more complicated one, and she's a much more interesting person. Rosa Parks is a long-time activist. She was active in the NAACP in Montgomery, she was secretary of the state NAACP for a couple of years, she was the adviser to the youth branch of the NAACP.
Emilye Crosby: Parks had worked closely with E.D. Nixon, who was probably the foremost Black leader in Montgomery at the time. He was an NAACP leader. He was a union man with a history of working with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph at the national level. Rosa Parks and her husband had worked on freeing the Scottsboro Boys in the '30s, when they were falsely charged with rape and almost executed. Her grandfather was a follower of Marcus Garvey and believed in armed self-defense and Black pride. She was part of an investigation of the rape of a woman named Recy Taylor in a nearby community, that—she was the NAACP investigator of that incident, and part of a committee that tried to get justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor. And some of the same people that were involved in that were also central to the Montgomery bus boycott.
Emilye Crosby: So she was raised and lived as somebody with a real sense of strong racial identity and pride. And, you know, sometimes people are surprised, for example, that she was a strong supporter of Malcolm X and Robert Williams, who's best known for armed self defense. You know, people have this idea of her as sweet and passive and nonviolent. And, you know, she wasn't violent, but she was a fighter.
Emilye Crosby: Sometimes when students understand that Rosa Parks is an activist, when they understand that there was interest already in a boycott, they think that the whole thing was a setup or a plant. And so I try to get them to think about something that's in between. So Mrs. Parks had this incredibly long, rich history of activism in the community. She also had a history of conflicts with bus drivers. She had refused to move before when drivers had asked her, and she'd been put off buses before. And in fact, she said that if she hadn't been so distracted at the end of her day, she might not have even gotten on that bus because she had had conflicts with that driver before. Part of what made this incident different is she was actually arrested. So in this case, the difference comes not with what Mrs. Parks did, but with what the response was of white Montgomery, the police and the driver. Their response was different, which led to a different outcome. And she has even said in interviews that if she had thought too much about what might happen she might not have gone through with it, even as determined as she was.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Sidney Roger: You have done something here that I didn't quite understand myself, namely this: you said that you did not take a seat in the white section, and that is—there's no doubt that has been reported in that way. What happened then that you were in what is normally a colored section, and because whites had to stand up, at this point the driver asked you to get up to allow someone else to sit down.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Rosa Parks: Yes. White persons.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Sidney Roger: A white person to sit down.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Rosa Parks: Yes.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Sidney Roger: A person who may or may not have been as tired as you.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Rosa Parks: Well, that's true.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Sidney Roger: But who had not paid any more than you had.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Rosa Parks: No, he hadn't. The driver said that if I refused to leave the seat, he would have to call the police. And I told him just call the police, which he did. And when they came, they placed me under arrest.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Sidney Roger: Wasn't that a pretty frightening thing to be arrested in Montgomery, Alabama?
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Rosa Parks: No, I wasn't frightened at all.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Sidney Roger: You weren't frightened? Why weren't you frightened?
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Rosa Parks: I don't know why I wasn't, but I didn't feel afraid. I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Sidney Roger: Because you considered yourself a citizen as well as a human being in Montgomery, Alabama.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Narrator: Mrs. Rosa Parks, December 1955. It was she who decided she'd had it. Enough. And by sitting where she did, by being arrested, set off what was and probably always will be considered the turning point in this century of the drive toward self-liberation, self-emancipation. She said, "I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a citizen and a human being in Montgomery, Alabama."
Emilye Crosby: It was really kind of a personal moment. She had a history, she had a sense of being part of a larger struggle, and she just was not prepared to be mistreated that night and accept it. So how do you go from Rosa Parks' arrest to an extremely effective one-day boycott just a few days later? Pretty quickly, word spreads around Montgomery that she's been arrested. E.D. Nixon, who she worked with with the NAACP, immediately starts setting about getting her bailed out of jail. And Nixon says, "With your permission, I'd like to use your case to challenge segregation." He's spoken really forcefully about how Rosa Parks was the perfect symbol. And he said that from his experience as an activist and his experience in politics, that he felt you had to have the right person as a symbol, somebody who could hold up to scrutiny, somebody who could hold up to pressure, somebody that the community would rally around.
Emilye Crosby: Rosa Parks was perfect, right? She's a seasoned activist. She's a churchgoing woman. She's educated, she's well-known. She's widely liked, she's very respectable. And her respectability was really important to him and to some others in the community. He even said in one interview that if she hadn't come along, he might have not considered acceptable another seven or eight people before he found somebody that he thought that they could organize a protest around.
Emilye Crosby: At least two other Black women had been arrested for refusing to move in situations similar to Rosa Parks. Claudette Colvin had been arrested. I believe she was 15 and turned 16 shortly after when she was arrested. A lot of African-Americans in Montgomery were so disgusted that they started boycotting after Claudette Colvin, and there was disagreement about whether to have a full-fledged boycott at that point. And she became pregnant, which also discouraged some people in the community. Again, the respectability issue. They didn't want the community to look bad. So there was a kind of partial boycott around Claudette Colvin's arrest, but it did fizzle out.
Emilye Crosby: So Rosa Parks is arrested. She agrees to let her case be a symbol and challenge her conviction. But there's no automatic assumption that there's going to be a boycott to go with this. But the word is spread around town. And Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women's Political Council, has also heard that Rosa Parks has been arrested. And Jo Ann Robinson is just like, we are not letting this slide. We are not going to lose another opportunity. And she wrote up a little announcement of a boycott. She called for a one-day boycott on Monday, which was the day of Rosa Parks's trial. Here's what the leaflet says:
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown into jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: It is the second time since the Claudette Colbert [sic] case that a Negro women has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: Negroes have rights, too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negroes, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother.
Voice Actor, Jo Ann Robinson: This woman's case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.
Emilye Crosby: And so the Women's Political Council kind of kicks into high gear and starts getting these leaflets all over town. While Jo Anne Gibson Robinson is creating these leaflets and implementing the Women's Political Council plans and spreading the word that way, E.D. Nixon is calling ministers, and he sets up a meeting for Friday afternoon at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Montgomery to plan the one day boycott on Monday. So in addition to all of the publicity that the Women's Political Council was able to generate by handing out their fliers, ministers who had met on Friday and gotten the word had talked about it on Sunday. E.D. Nixon had gotten a friend of his or a colleague or acquaintance who worked for the white newspaper to do a good story on it and print it.
Emilye Crosby: And white city officials in Montgomery helped out by sending police to follow the buses. They were doing this ostensibly to stop, quote, "Negro goon squads." Whites were convinced that Blacks wanted to ride the bus, and that it would only be coercion that would keep them off. And so they sent police to prevent that coercion. But of course, Black people were more intimidated by the thought of the police than they were by other African Americans. So that actually, if anything, kept a few more people off. And the bus boycott's been incredibly successful. There's—like, no Black people are on the buses.
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Sidney Roger: They didn't ride on the day of the trial, they walked. And then how come they kept right on walking?
[ARCHIVE CLIP] Rosa Parks: I feel they kept on walking because I was not the only person who had been mistreated and humiliated. Others had gone through the same experience, some even worse experience than mine. And they all felt that the time had come that they should decide that we would have to stop supporting the bus company until we were given better service.
Emilye Crosby: And how do you go from a one-day boycott to an open-ended boycott that ends up lasting over a year? There's another meeting on Monday at Holt Street Baptist Church, and I mean, the place was packed. There was loudspeakers hanging outside to carry the proceedings to the crowd outside until whites in the area complained. And even after they shut the speakers down, people stayed outside listening. And there was no way there wasn't going to be a continuation of the boycott. I mean, there was just so much energy and so much excitement and so much commitment. Even the collection was like an active collection. People are giving money. I think they raised about $2,000 that first night for the boycott.
Emilye Crosby: One of the other things they did was put together a resolution of support of the boycott and a set of demands. And the demands were very similar to the ones that the Women's Political Council had laid out in the letter to the mayor that they'd been asking for for years. And it's at this meeting that Dr. King is chosen as the leader of the Montgomery bus boycott.
Emilye Crosby: You know, there's a sense Rosa Parks accidentally or whatever launches it by sitting and not leaving her seat, but King is immediately the leader, and he's kind of the be all end all of the boycott. And, you know, I think it's much more accurate to say that the movement made Martin more than Martin made the movement. I mean, we get it even from that very first letter from the Women's Political Council that he's not even in Montgomery when Black women and other community leaders are working on the bus issue. So it's very important to know that the boycott would have happened with or without him. That said, once he is nominated and accepts the leadership role, he really embraces it, he claims it. And there are some things he does that he does very well. He really inspired intense loyalty in a lot of people.
Emilye Crosby: Jo Ann Gibson Robinson said that she thought he inspired moral courage in people, that he really brought out the best in people at times. He could also listen to people. He definitely seemed to listen better to, you know, other ministers and men, and I don't mean just in Montgomery, but over the course of his career he did seem to have a bit of a blind spot in particular with listening to people like Ella Baker and Septima Clark and some of the women that he worked with closely in SCLC who were really important in the movement. I think it's important to not overstate his role, but also acknowledge that he does play an important role.
Emilye Crosby: There's sort of two levels of organization and leadership that happened throughout the boycott. And they actually represent kind of two major forms of leadership and organization in the movement itself. You have this layer of organizers that's epitomized by Jo Ann Gibson Robinson and E.D. Nixon. They're very effective at bringing people together, and being able to tap into their networks and communicate with people and get people to act. And the other track is represented by King and the kind of more traditional leadership. I do like to emphasize with students that these same forms of leadership, although not identical, show up in many ways throughout the civil rights movement, in that a lot of times you have a public, visible, charismatic leadership, but that it wouldn't be successful if you didn't also have kind of grassroots organizing, less visible leadership that's, you know, sort of doing what Ella Baker would call the spade work, the day-in, day-out work. And it's often the work that was done by women or men who aren't as high profile.
Emilye Crosby: Women are absolutely essential to the civil rights movement as participants, as leaders, as people making things happen, but they tend not to be as visible and tend not to be as remembered or recognized, often at the time and certainly after the fact. You know, Jo Ann Gibson Robinson may be one of the most unsung heroes of the civil rights movement, clearly. I'm not sure there was anybody that played a more central role in the Montgomery bus boycott than Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. All of the work that she did with the Women's Political Council over the years, you know, along with her full-time teaching job, she drove cars in the carpool. She helped organize the carpool. She gave speeches, raised money. She put out a newsletter. She was on the negotiating committee with the white community. She actually had more experience negotiating with the white community than anybody else when the boycott started. And in her case, one of the reasons that she may not have been as visible at the time is because of protecting her job. She was vulnerable to losing her job working at a public college.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Tolerance has a new classroom film. The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors is a critical contribution to the unfolding conversation about what our children need to learn about American history. The 12-minute video introduces middle and high school students to the history of Indigenous enslavement on land that is currently known as the United States.
Margaret Newell: African slaves were not a big part of the slave society of New England until the 18th century.
Paula Peters: If you don’t know the whole story, you’re going to walk away with a fairy tale.
Sven Haakanson: But we need to know this, so that we can move forward too—both as Indigenous communities but as a nation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You can watch this film and find the accompanying teaching resources at Tolerance.org/forgottenslavery—all one word. Now let’s continue our conversation with Dr. Crosby.
Emilye Crosby: What happens to Rosa Parks once the boycott starts? She is involved and active with the boycott, but not as much as you might have expected her to be. And she certainly was not an out-front visible leader as much as a symbol. Historian Danielle McGuire, who's got a book out At the Dark End of the Street about violence against Black women and the struggle against that violence. She's written the most about Rosa Parks and others in Montgomery working on the Recy Taylor case. The first three chapters are about that case and the investigation, and then the people overlap with the Montgomery bus boycott. One of the things that McGuire speculates is that, with the Red Scare and McCarthyism, that there was a lot of concern about when the boycott started, making sure that it wasn't susceptible to being red-baited. And so that there was really kind of an attempt to downplay any sort of radicalism, and to really emphasize a kind of paternalism. So she says that this kind of mythologizing of Rosa Parks as this sort of kind of spontaneous, tired, old person that this just happened to, as opposed to a conscious, thinking activist, was constructed by the male leaders kind of on the spot. And so in this case, that myth-making happened immediately, that it's not something imposed, you know, primarily by historians after the fact. And that, you know, in part it does relate to the Cold War, but that it's also very closely tied to some of the gender dynamics.
Emilye Crosby: And certainly, women remain central to the work of the Montgomery bus boycott. But except for Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, almost none of them have visible roles. Ultimately, Rosa Parks and her husband leave Montgomery. They're never able to get work again after the boycott. She moves to Detroit. She ends up getting involved in the full range of issues that are facing African Americans in Detroit and other parts of the country outside of the South, including segregated and poor housing and police brutality, and any number of other things. And so she reminds us, you know, not just of the importance of the Montgomery bus boycott and the decades of activism that she was involved in before, but also the cost of getting involved in that kind of protest. You know, losing her job, having to leave her home. But I don't think she ever regretted what she did, standing up for what she believed. And she continued her entire life to try to fight for justice. And if that meant using her name and her reputation, she would do it.
Emilye Crosby: And anybody interested in learning more about Rosa Parks should definitely check out Jeanne Theoharis's biography, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. One of the things that's important about it is that it looks at Rosa Parks over the whole course of her life and not just limited to the Montgomery bus boycott. And when Jeanne Theoharis wrote the book, Mrs. Parks's papers weren't available, but since then, the Library of Congress has acquired them. And so I'm sure there'll be additional work on Mrs. Parks. But meanwhile, the biography is a great resource, and it gives a sense of Mrs. Parks's life before the boycott and after in Detroit, as well as during. In addition, Jeanne Theoharis helped put together a website specifically for teachers in teaching Rosa Parks called RosaParksBiography.org, which is a great resource for teachers.
Emilye Crosby: I think it's, you know, too easy to just focus on what African Americans are doing, and not explore enough in detail what they're up against, both in terms of white power, white supremacy in the first place, but also the way that's used to try to destroy the movement or undermine the movement. And so that's one of the things that I really try to emphasize with my students, because I think it's an essential thing to understand, both for the movement and honestly, where we are today in our society as well. And what still remains to be done.
Emilye Crosby: So one of the key tactics that's used to try to undermine the boycott and used to slow or stop protest and activism in general across the South is economic intimidation, economic terrorism. For example, people like Rosa Parks and her husband are fired from their jobs. Violence is another major tactic, extralegal violence. King's home is bombed, E.D. Nixon's home is bombed, Ralph Abernathy's home is bombed. Reverend Graetz, a white minister and supporter, his home was bombed. And of course, this extra-legal violence is protected by the so-called legal system. The white power structure, law enforcement, police have no interest in finding who's responsible. And in fact, the legal system is manipulated and misused to try to undermine and intimidate the boycott.
Emilye Crosby: So we see that with the harassment of drivers. You know, people are given tickets for driving too fast, for driving too slow. People are given tickets for speeding when they're parked. I mean, there's just all kinds of ludicrous stuff that's happening. Whites in Montgomery will change the law so Black taxi drivers will charge a dime, which is the same fare as the buses would charge, and then whites will pass a law saying they can't do that. And so the legal system is used as a kind of a battering ram or a wedge against the movement. The mass arrests with the conspiracy charges, another attempt to intimidate the boycott.
Emilye Crosby: I had a student who said to me, you know, that before he took a class with me, he thought that the worst thing African Americans faced before the civil rights movement was separate water fountains. And my students have this perception of segregation as separate, but not really a big deal. And they don't think about the extent to which segregation is really about hierarchy.
Emilye Crosby: In the South, there's actually incredible intimacy between Black and white people in some settings. Whites, who wouldn't let an African American walk past them on the bus to get to their seat or wouldn't sit next to an African American on the bus, almost certainly if they're of a certain class, were raised by a Black nurse who took care of them in incredibly intimate ways. If they're sick, if they're old, they're likely to be nursed by Black women. Black women would be exempt from segregation laws and could go into a park with a white child if they're there to take care of that white child. Even the same on the bus, because you couldn't expect a white child to sit in the back of the bus. So if a Black maid is taking a white child somewhere, they become exempt. So that it's really very much a system of power. It's a system of hierarchy. It's not a system of separation, primarily.
Emilye Crosby: A lot of times, my students are like, "Well, why do white people hate Black people so much?" And it's not really about hate. It's not about hate at all. It's about power. It's about controlling resources, it's about having resources for themselves. Whether it's the best seat on the bus, a guaranteed seat no matter how many people are on the bus. I mean, that's at its most superficial, but it's about controlling jobs, it's about controlling the resources in schools and making sure that your children have the vast majority of the resources to support their school. Whites automatically get the best of everything. They get first access, they get waited on first. Until the Civil Rights Act of '64, it was legally acceptable for jobs to be preserved for whites, for white men.
Emilye Crosby: It can be really startling for whites when they actually confront that what they experience is a form of privilege, and so that if other people are going to have equality, if we are going to have equality in our society, they have to give up that privilege or that privilege is going to be taken from them. I remember once I was trying to teach about affirmative action. I was a very young teacher and I didn't do a particularly good job of it. And I just remember this one young white man said, "They're taking our jobs." "Why are they your jobs? How did they get to be yours?" And I think you get that with the civil rights movement. I studied a small community in rural Mississippi and, you know, whites felt like the civil rights movement destroyed this Utopian community that they had. You know, everything was set up and revolved around their needs, their world, right? So the majority of the funding went to the school that their kids went to. They got all the good jobs. Everything was set up for their benefit. And so when African Americans challenged that, they don't say, "Oh, gee. Yeah, you know, we've had all these advantages all these years." They see it as loss. They don't see it as a loss of something they never had a right to. They just see it as a loss.
Emilye Crosby: I think it's really important to recognize just how thorough white power and white control was. There was nothing that they weren't willing to do to preserve their power. It's really remarkable that they weren't successful, given everything that they threw at the boycott.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music was vital to the civil rights movement, and continues to be critical to global freedom struggles today. In this installment of "Movement Music," historian Charles Hughes shares two songs that reflect important cultural moments from the era of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here’s Charles.
Charles Hughes: In February 1957, Fats Domino, the New Orleans-born and bred rock 'n' roll pioneer, released "I'm Walkin.'" "I'm Walkin'" flips the love-gone-wrong blues into a declaration of independence, perseverance, and—literally—movement.
Charles Hughes: Maybe Domino and his co-writer, the legendary bandleader Dave Bartholomew, weren’t directly referencing a different kind of movement, but it’s easy to hear the energies of the Montgomery bus boycott, which ended in December of the previous year. During those long months, Black folks in Montgomery walked rather than ride the segregated buses, announcing the arrival of the modern civil rights movement through direct actions, mass meetings, community organizing and the soaring rhetoric of a young Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Charles Hughes: The persistent pulse of "I'm Walkin'" also symbolized the larger cultural disruptions of late-1950s rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll’s excitable rhythms, interracial fan base and overt sexuality was the soundtrack of the revolution. Iconoclastic artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and LaVern Baker captured the hopes and anxieties of the moment. Rock 'n' roll, like the movement, was demonized as the product of debased outsiders and Communist subversion. Even the friendly warmth of Fats Domino emerged into the same political and cultural mix that produced the boycott and other late-'50s movement campaigns.
Charles Hughes: The spark-plug energy of "I’m Walkin'" thus accurately captures the energies of the local people who launched a national movement. But there’s another—and perhaps more accurate—story about the boycott in another pop song from the same era.
Charles Hughes: The Shirelles' 1961 hit "Mama Said" is a tale of lost love, in which lead singer Shirley Owens tells us of the wisdom, support and strength passed down from her mother. When her "Mama said there’d be days like this," she wasn’t just relating the reality of a tough world, she was imparting survival strategies, including the critical practice of Black women relying on each other.
Charles Hughes: These networks of generational wisdom and organizing among women—sometimes in secret—were crucial to the Montgomery bus boycott. And they took root in the work of Jo Ann Robinson, the Women’s Political Council and all the Black women who propelled the boycott to success. Even when days were hard, movement activists drew on the lessons of the past to approach an uncertain present. The linked traditions that scholar Darlene Clark Hine called "A culture of dissemblance" and historian Danielle McGuire identified as "A tradition of testimony." They knew there’d be days like this, so they kept walking. The music, whether Fats Domino, the Shirelles, or so many others, helps us know and feel what was in the air during pivotal moments like the Montgomery bus boycott. All we need to do is keep listening.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Music has so much to teach us about the movement. And when you hear the energies, the pulsating energy of Fats Domino, you can't help but get excited about fighting for freedom. But when you hear the lessons that The Shirelles are singing, the lessons that Mama said there will be days like this, you can't help but think what was going through the mind of a Rosa Parks when that bus driver comes back and tells her to get up. You can imagine her saying something like, "Mama said there'll be days like this, and you know what? Today I'm gonna fight back." Music has so much to teach us about the moment, and Charles is right: all we have to do is keep on listening.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Be sure to check out our latest Spotify playlist. Dr. Hughes has curated dozens of songs that amplify even more of the ideas raised in this episode. Now back to Emilye Crosby.
Emilye Crosby: The Montgomery bus boycott began in December, 1955, and runs over a year and ends in December, 1956. African Americans in Montgomery file suit in federal court to directly challenge segregated buses. So at that point, what they're demanding really changes. But instead of trying to get it through the economic coercion of a boycott, they go through the court system to try to achieve it. And that case ends up being called Browder vs. Gayle, and it's decided by the Supreme Court once and for all in December of 1956. And that's what leads to the end of the boycott, and Blacks vote to go back on the buses on a desegregated basis.
Emilye Crosby: One of the things that's really, really important and really interesting, I think, related to the Browder vs. Gayle case is who the plaintiffs are. So I think there's a perception among many people that the leaders of the civil rights movement are ministers. And the Montgomery bus boycott is a good example of where you would get that idea from, right? And it's an example of a place where that is true to a point. None of the ministers agreed to be plaintiffs in the Browder vs. Gayle case. So the plaintiffs are all women. Two of the plaintiffs are young women, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, who had been arrested prior to Rosa Parks being arrested. And then there were a couple other women.
Emilye Crosby: And let me just say a little bit about Claudette Colvin. I think she's really important. The fact that E.D. Nixon and some of the other leaders didn't want to go forward with her as a representative and organize a boycott around her is part of what made Jo Ann Robinson so determined to go forward with Rosa Parks and not wait. Did not want to lose another opportunity. Claudette Colvin also kind of speaks to the importance of respectability for some people in Montgomery and how that influenced the decisions. My understanding is she was not pregnant at the time that she was arrested, but that she became pregnant. But that E.D. Nixon did not feel that she and her family would represent the community in the way that he wanted. Some people still felt strongly about what happened to her. Rosa Parks sought her out and encouraged her to come join the NAACP youth group. And was really solicitous of her. Other people in the community did boycott because of what happened to her, out of anger, out of support.
Emilye Crosby: But then when they're looking for plaintiffs, you know, they're looking for people who had had conflicts on the buses and she's one of the people they talked to. And I believe at this point, she's probably 16 years old. She agrees. The ministers won't put their names on this lawsuit, they're not prepared to be in the public eye and withstand whatever comes with it. But this 16-year-old girl is. So she's one of the key plaintiffs in Browder vs. Gayle that overturns bus segregation in Montgomery.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray, Counsel for the plaintiffs: Where were you on your way to?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: I was going home from school.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: Will you please tell the court exactly what happened on March 2nd, 1955?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: I rode the bus and it was turning in on Perry and Dexter Avenue, and me and some other schoolchildren, I sit on the seat on the left hand side, on the seat just above the emergency door, me and another girl beside me.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: You say another girl was sitting by you and another girl was sitting across from you? Do you mean those two girls were Negroes?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Yes, sir. And he drove on down to the next block, and by the time all the people got in there, he seen that there were no more vacant seats. He asked us to get up, and the big girl got up but I didn't. So he drove on down into the Square, and some more people boarded the bus. So, Mrs. Hamilton, she got on the bus, and she sat down beside me, and that leaves the other seat vacant.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: You mean that from across the aisle, the other two girls had gotten up when the bus driver requested them to?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Yes, sir. So he looked back through the window and he saw us, and he was surprised to see she [Hamilton] was sitting down, too. He asked her to get up then, and he asked both of us to get up. She said she was not going to get up, she didn't feel like it. He drove on down to the next corner or block, rather. And he got up and asked us to get up. So he directly asked me to get up first. So I told him I was not going to get up.
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: He said, "If you are not going to get up, I will get a policeman." So he went somewhere and got a policeman. He, the policeman, said, "Why are you not going to get up?" He said, "It's against the law here." So I told him that I didn't know that it was a law that a colored person had to get up and give a white person a seat when there were not any more vacant seats and colored people were standing up. I said I was just as good as any white person and I wasn't going to get up. So he got off, and then two more policemen came in. He said, "Who is it?" And he was very angry about it. He said, "That is not new. I had trouble out of that thing before."
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: So he said, "Aren't you going to get up?" He didn't say anything to Mrs. Hamilton then. He just said it to me. He said, "Aren't you going to get up?" And I said, "No." He saw Mrs. Hamilton, but he was afraid to ask her to get up. He said, "If any of you are not gentlemen enough to give a lady a seat you should be put in jail yourself." So Mr. Harris, he got up and gave her a seat and immediately got off the bus. He said, "You can have that seat, I am getting off." And so she taken his seat. So he asked me if I'm not going to get up. I said, "No, sir." I was crying then. I was very hurt because I didn't know that white people would act like that, and I was crying.
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: And he said, "I will have to take you off." So I didn't move. I didn't move at all. I just acted like a big baby. So he kicked me, and one got on one side of me and one got on the other arm and they just drug me out. And so I was very pitiful. It really hurt me to see that I have to give a person a seat when all those colored people were standing. And there were not any more vacant seats. I had never seen nothing like that. Well, they take me down, they put me in a car and one of the motorcycle men he says, "I am sorry to have to take you down like this." So they put handcuffs on me through the window.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: After that, where did they take you?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: They taken me to City Hall.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: While you were at the City Hall, did anyone ask your age?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Yes. They asked my age and everything.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: Where did you go from the City Hall?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: I went to the City Jail.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: Did they mention anything to you about taking you to the Detention Home, the Juvenile Court instead of the City Jail?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Yes, sir. One of the policemen.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: So they took you to the City Jail?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Yes, sir.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: How long were you there?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: It was over an hour.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: What happened when you got to the City Jail?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Well, all the people were staring at me and asked me what was wrong. One of the policemen said, "She didn't want to sit back there with the Negroes!" And so he said, "If any more of them act like that—she was the only one that didn't want to move back." So they put me in the cell and locked the door.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: And you stayed there until your parents came and made bond?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Yes, sir.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: What were you charged with?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: I was charged with violating the city code, or certain sections of the city code.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: You were convicted?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Yes, I was.
Emilye Crosby: So Walter Knabe, counsel for the defendant said:
Voice Actor, Walter Knabe, Counsel for Defendants: You have changed. That is, you and the other Negroes have changed your ideas since December 5, have you not?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: No, sir. We haven't changed our ideas. It has been in me ever since I was born.
Voice Actor, Walter Knabe: But the group stopped riding the buses for certain named things. That is correct, isn't it?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: For what?
Voice Actor, Walter Knabe: For certain things that Reverend King said were the things you objected to?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: No, sir. It was in the beginning when they arrested me, when they seen how dirty they treated the Negro girls here, that they had begun to feel like that all the time, though some of us just didn't have the guts to stand up.
Voice Actor, Walter Knabe: Did you have a leader when you started this bus boycott?
Voice Actor, Claudette Colvin: Did we have a leader? Our leaders is just we ourself.
Emilye Crosby: “Our leaders is just we ourself.” Pretty powerful for a 15 year old, huh? And that really connects to one of the things that I think is just really fundamental about the civil rights movement, and one of the things I try to always teach. And actually now is a good time for teaching this with the uprising following the killing of George Floyd and the continuing protests across the country, people are not waiting for leaders, people are acting. And if you study the Montgomery bus boycott, you understand that it doesn't happen because of King. King happens because of it.
Emilye Crosby: And Claudette Colvin and other people who make the Montgomery bus boycott happen really teach us something important about if we want change, we have to act. We have to stand up for ourselves. And if we stand up for ourselves, if we stand up for other people, if we stand up for what's right, then maybe other people join us and we have a movement. And I think we're seeing that now. But we don't always see that. And so it's one of the things that I really emphasize with students is the importance of ordinary people acting, that leadership comes through the actions of a lot of people rather than generating the actions of a lot of people.
Emilye Crosby: There are two essays that I love using in my classes that help connect the Montgomery bus boycott story to things that are happening today, especially with the Movement for Black Lives. Barbara Ransby, who has, you know, I think the most important biography of Ella Baker, wrote an essay a few years back called ”Ella Taught Me: Shattering the Myth of the Leaderless Movement” that is really about leadership in the current Movement for Black Lives, and how it draws on the kind of leadership tradition of Ella Baker of organizing. She points out some of the problems with how current mainstream media has portrayed the Movement for Black Lives—and this is a few years back when that movement was in its earlier days. They were criticizing the Movement for Black Lives as being leaderless, and attributing leadership to people who didn't really have much claim on leadership, but were maybe visible to the media.
Emilye Crosby: And instead, she draws on Ella Baker and the civil rights movement to identify key aspects of leadership, and then shows how those attributes are reflected in the larger Movement for Black Lives. So it's really kind of an important link between the two movements in terms of how we understand leadership.
Emilye Crosby: So Carol Anderson's essay “Respectability Will Not Save Us,” you know, is a great link between the Montgomery bus boycott and issues today. In the Montgomery bus boycott, people really sort of accepted the idea that respectability was an important tool in furthering the movement. And Anderson's essay shows that respectability hasn't really worked as a tactic. African Americans have tried to play by the rules. They have followed all of the expectations of being respectable. And that hasn't saved anybody. One of the things that the Movement for Black Lives has done is really kind of reject the need to lead with respectability. All Black lives should matter, not just the lives of respectable people.
Emilye Crosby: One of the best movies on the civil rights movement in my perspective is an HBO film called Boycott. One of the things that I find really interesting about Boycott is the way that it ends: some of the central characters getting on the bus together after, you know, they've won the boycott. So you've got Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon and Ralph Abernathy, and they're getting on the bus. And then they're asking King. You know, Abernathy says, "You coming, brother?" I think is something like that. And King's like, "No, you go on." And so the bus leaves King in an urban environment, and he's just walking down the sidewalk. And it's clear that he's in the contemporary world, or what was contemporary in 2001 when the film was made. And as he walks down the street, you see different people recognize him. And he'll stand and he'll talk with a group of young men on the corner, and you see a couple of police officers drive by.
Emilye Crosby: And I think that's kind of interesting because, you know, so often one of the problems of the master narrative and the ways that the movement is told in popular culture, is it's told as a finished story, as something that's over, that's neatly wrapped up. And the Montgomery bus boycott, as much as any part of the civil rights movement, you could kind of end with this great happy ending. And, you know, everything is fine without really acknowledging what happens next in Montgomery and all that's still to come in the movement. But instead, the filmmakers, the producers, writers, they have King walking into the future, sort of as if to confront ongoing issues.
Emilye Crosby: And so one of the things I like to use in my teaching of the Montgomery bus boycott are an edited collection called Daybreak of Freedom, edited by Stewart Burns. Burns's Daybreak of Freedom is the book that the film Boycott is based on, and so if you use it with your students, you can also use some of these documents to illustrate parts of the film or parts of the boycott that you'd like your students to dig into a little bit more. And it's just an extraordinary collection.
Emilye Crosby: So I use bits and pieces of that in various classes. And one of the things I like about it, using it with students is they have this—you know, they have a picture of the Montgomery bus boycott, and we start with some of the kind of basic sources that I would use in a regular class on the movement. And so then they think they know the story. And then we read this book, and it just adds layer after layer after layer after layer. And so, instead of just this kind of narrative story with some interesting highlights, then you start to get enough of the primary sources that you can really dig into a whole range of topics. So for example, you can explore philosophical nonviolence, you can explore whites, you can look at all kinds of, you know, white resistance. You can look at competing ideas in the Black community. I mean, there's just—so with this whole book full of primary sources, it just gives a sense of the richness of the story, but also the kinds of things that you can use primary sources to learn about.
Emilye Crosby: There's just, you know, layers upon layers upon layers. Some of the documents that he includes, they're actually interviews. Sort of person on the street or woman on the street interviews. And there are different sets of them. And some of them, I think, were done by researchers from Fisk University who came over and wanted to kind of explore how people who were participating in the boycott understood what they were doing, how they felt about it. And I love some of the ones with Black maids. And, you know, in the wake of the recent demonstrations and people's—white people's interest in race, you know, there's been this uptick in interest in watching the film The Help as a source on race relations, which, you know, I find appalling. But it has this very stereotypical portrayal of Black domestic workers, Black maids. And I do sometimes teach The Help.
Emilye Crosby: And these interviews give a very different picture of the Black women who are doing that kind of work. And one of the other things I think that's actually useful about some of these documents is you can get a sense of some of the interactions between the women and—the Black women and the white women who employ them. And those dynamics vary. Now, of course, you know, as with any source, you might take some of it with a grain of salt. But they're really interesting, compelling documents, some of them. So this is an interview on the afternoon of January 27th with a store maid. And the interviewer is Willie M. Lee and the maid, she estimates that the maid is between 30 and 35 years of age. And so the maid says, quote:
Voice Actor, Maid: I'm so mad I don't know what to do. Do you know those bastards put Reverend King in jail last night? And this morning they all parked on the corners and asking folks how come they didn't ride the bus? They think they bad 'cause they got guns, but I sure hope they know how to use 'em, 'cause if they don't, I’ll eat 'em up with my razor. If they can use 'em, they bet not come up on me and hit me 'cause he'll never use it then, 'cause he'll be in pieces so fast he won't even know what hit 'em.
Voice Actor, Willie M. Lee: Before the people stopped riding the buses, did you ever have to get up and stand so white people could sit down?
Voice Actor, Maid: Yeah, that happen almost every day. But let me tell you 'bout this one morning. I got on the bus and I had a nickel and five pennies. I put the nickel in and showed him the five pennies. You know how you do. You put five pennies in there, and they say you didn't. And do you know that bastard cussed me out? He called me "bastard," "whores." And when he called me "motherfucker," I got mad and I put my hand on my razor. I looked at him and told him, "Your mammy was a son-of-a-bitch, that's why she had you a bitch. And if you so bad, git up outta that seat." I rode four blocks, then I went to the front door and back off the bus, and I was jest hoping he'd get up. I was gonna cut his head slamp off, but he didn't say nothing. They started this thing, and now they can't finish it. They didn't have a bit of need to arrest Miss Parks. All they had to do was talk to her like she was a lady, but they had to be so big and take her to jail.
Voice Actor, Maid: They bit the lump off and us making ‘em chew it. I know ol' [police commissioner Clyde] Sellers, ol' dog, wish he could spit. But God fix 'em all colored people ain't like they used to be. They ain't scared no more. Guns don't scare us. These white folks just keep messing up. They gonna have a war if they keep on. We be just forced to kill 'em all, 'cause if they hurt Reverend King, I don't mind dying, but I sho' Lord am taking a white bastard with 'em. If I don't have my razor with me, I'll use a stick.
Voice Actor, Willie M. Lee: You know, I was reading in the paper a couple of days ago that the commissioner wanted to settle by giving ten seats to the whites and ten to colored. What do you think about that?
Voice Actor, Maid: That ain't nothin'. That's the same thing we had before. They just want to make fools outta us. Before we get on the bus, they gonna let us keep our seats when we get 'em, they gonna be courteous and give us colored drivers. You can do anything for 'em, but just don't sit beside 'em. Now you know it ain't no harm in that. I don't want they no-good men 'cause a white man can't do nothing for me. Give me a Black man any day. And I never worry about any no good white bitch taking a man o' mine. She ain't woman enough to take 'em. You know, I'm going to New York when this is over and get me a job and work up there.
Voice Actor, Willie M. Lee: Speaking of working, do the people you work for ever say anything about your riding the bus?
Voice Actor, Maid: See, I work in a store. Now the man who own the store is nice, but there's one ol' cracker who like to boss people around. So the other day when I got to work, she asked did I ride the bus? I told her that that wasn't the worst of it. I ain't gonna ride it. So she tried to be smart all day. Every time I dust, she say I half dust. She kept it up 'til almost two o'clock. I told her if she don't like the way I did it to do it herself. She didn't hire me and she sure couldn't fire me. She bristled all up like she wanted to hit me. I said, "Look, my ma was Black and she resting—deceased—and the white woman, she ain't been born that would hit me and live. They'll—the policemen—get me when they do, but you'll be 3D: dead, damned, and delivered." And you know that hussy ain't did nothing but spoke to me since then. When they find you ain't scared of them. They leave you alone, son-of-a-bitches.
Voice Actor, Willie M. Lee: By the way, how did you get word that the people would not ride the buses?
Voice Actor, Maid: I found a slip of paper in my door, then I read it in the newspaper. You see, I'm off on Monday, so that Tuesday I started walking early and I'm on time now more than I used to be, because I leave home in time to walk. And it's just about a mile, but I catch a ride most times. If they start back running, I'm gonna walk that mile still. If they get another dime from me, I won't know it. Well, this is my stop. Let's hold out and pray, and I know we'll get what we want.
Emilye Crosby: And so this is, you know, they're riding on the car pool, is where this conversation's taking place. And then the interviewer adds this note:
Voice Actor, Willie M. Lee: [The maid] was clean and neatly dressed with tendencies in dress slightly toward the masculine side with cap and jacket. She was of dark complexion with smooth skin, of medium build and height, very expressive with face and hands, forceful personality.
Emilye Crosby: And, you know, obviously one of the other things about this is E.D. Nixon and the others, they really want Rosa Parks to represent the boycott, in part because she's so respectable, she's educated. She, you know, speaks, quote, "standard English." She's a churchgoing woman. And, you know, these women who are rough and cussing and threatening violence, this is—I mean, this is just so far outside of the typical image of the Montgomery bus boycott, it's almost startling to read them. But, you know, this, I think, gives a sense of just kind of the wide range of people who participated. And I also suspect that for some people, they're happy to have an outlet and express some of their anger and frustration from the mistreatment that they've had over the years. And so both being able to participate in the boycott and then also being able to talk about it is a way to kind of fight back.
Emilye Crosby: And clearly, you also get this sense of people feeling emboldened, right? They're part of something larger. They're not going to take any more crap. They're not going to—they're not going to let themselves or King or other people be attacked. They're not going to, you know, sit back and let themselves be abused by employers. Anyway, there's a wide range and they vary, but there's just a real richness. And, you know, in addition to these interviews, there's—I mean, these are just—there's also minutes of meetings. There's letters from outside the community in, there's letters from inside the community out. There's just almost any kind of document you can imagine is included in the collection. So it's just really rich. And if there's a particular topic that you want to explore with students, you're almost sure to find a document that’ll let you do that. I just absolutely love this collection, and I really love the way it was used to create the film Boycott. I think both of them are excellent resources.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is Teaching Hard History, and I’m your host Hasan Kwame Jeffries. We are hoping you will apply what you learn from the podcast in your classrooms. That’s why, for every episode, we prepare a detailed page of show notes just for you. It includes a complete transcript, which our team has enhanced with links to many relevant resources. This means you can easily find the materials mentioned by our guests, including more tools for teaching about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. You can find these detailed show notes at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Let’s return now to Dr. Crosby.
Emilye Crosby: I talked about the fact that within the Montgomery bus boycott, we get a really good picture of charismatic leadership and organizing leadership. But there's also kind of more community-level leadership, family-level leadership. You know, part of what makes the boycott so effective is that there's just layers and layers and layers of people doing all kinds of things to contribute. And so, you know, at its most basic, you've got the people who stay off the bus. They just stay off the bus. They may never go to a mass meeting. They may never do anything else, but they observe the boycott and stay off the bus. But then you've also got people who just find ways to contribute. And so a good example is a woman named Georgia Gilmore. Georgia Gilmore, she didn't have a lot of money, but she was a great cook. And so she scraped together some money from some friends. I think the story is they bought some chicken and some lettuce and some bread, and they made sandwiches and sold them. And that was the basis of their first donation to the bus boycott.
Emilye Crosby: But they got into this every week. They would cook, they would bake pies and cakes and sell them and raise money even from people who wouldn't come to the mass meetings. And they called themselves the Club From Nowhere. And it was a way to be sort of anonymous. So they would say the donation is from nowhere. But they inspired other people to do this similar kind of thing. So then another group was founded by Inez Ricks. And so then they would compete with each other to see who could raise the most money, which group of women would raise the most money. And then there was a group in another part of town.
Emilye Crosby: They don't have much in the way of resources, but they're using their labor and their ability to cook, to contribute. And not only are they doing that, but they're really adding to the mass meetings because there's this real, you know, excitement every week to see which one is going to win the competition, who's going to be able to raise the most money. And Georgia Gilmore, she also ends up losing her job, and King helps her open up kind of almost like a restaurant out of her house. She's in her teeny kitchen, she's cooking these huge lunches. And people would come and eat and just, you know, find a space in her house. But not only that, it becomes a place where King feels safe and comfortable. And so he would have meetings there, and he could come and he could get something to eat, but he could also talk to people and not worry about being overheard or not worry about, you know, any kind of issues. And so there are just many examples like that.
Emilye Crosby: And for people who are interested in learning a little bit more about Georgia Gilmore, Premilla Nadasen has a great book on Black domestic workers, Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African-American Women Who Built a Movement And among others, she talks about Georgia Gilmore and some of the women from the Montgomery bus boycott. The testimony that Premilla Nadasen’s using is actually from the King conspiracy trial. And this is some of the testimony that I like to use with my students, so that they can get a sense that, you know, what's going on in Montgomery is a lot more serious than, you know, separate water fountains. And that, in fact, part of the reason that they're concerned about their treatment on the buses, rather than segregation, is the violence and abuse that they face on the buses.
Emilye Crosby: So there's a few pieces of testimony that I've pulled out that I use with my students. But one of them is testimony by Mrs. Henrietta Brinson, and she says she had a lot of trouble with drivers and buses. And she's trying to give different incidents. And the judge and the prosecutor are really particular, and they don't want anybody who's testifying to describe anything if they can't give a specific date, and if they weren't there present themselves.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: Will you relate the time and place of your first experience that you had?
Emilye Crosby: That’s Fred Gray.
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: I cannot tell you. I remember the time, but I don't know the date.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: Your best judgment?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: It was 1953.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: What happened?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: I ride the Court Street bus, and when I would go to get on the Court Street bus you had to push to get on the bus on account of the schoolchildren, so many white children going to Lanier School. I wasn't able to get in unless I pushed to get in with the white children. So I started in with the white children and left my transfer at the door and went on back and stood up in the aisle of the bus. And he stood up and said, "Who gave me this old transfer?"
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: I cannot tell you the awful name he called me. He is the meanest man I ever saw in my life. I don't know his name, but I rode that bus all the time, and I rode to work in South Cloverdale. And why he had such a nasty way with the colored, I just don't know.
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: He looked at me and said, "You gave me that transfer, I saw you give me that transfer." I said, "You just laid that transfer on top of the other transfers," and I said, "There it is." (Indicating) He said, "Who are you talking to?" I said, "I am talking to you. Every time I catch the South Cloverdale I always have to worry with you about something. I don't see why you always keep on griping about something.”
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: “The other bus driver that carries me on the South Cloverdale bus, you don't have no trouble with him." So he looked at me like that and said, "Who do you think you are talking to? You are just getting off this bus. All you n*****s behaving like a parcel of cows." I said, "Well, that is all right. Just as long as I get to work." And that is what I did. We have had a lot of trouble with bus drivers because they are all working together and they don't want to treat us the right way.
Emilye Crosby: Mrs. Brinson is trying to describe different incidents. And with this next little bit of testimony, you get a sense of the kind of back and forth, where the judge and prosecutor are trying to really limit what they'll let her say, and she's really pushing back. And she wants to tell her story and not let them block her, in essence.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: Can you relate another circumstance and, if so, give us the time and place?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: I cannot give you any time.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: Your best judgment?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: I was on Day Street one afternoon coming in from work, and this bus came from Highland Avenue.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: When was this?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: This was year before last now.
Voice Actor, Fred Gray: 1953?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: Yes, sir, that's right. I got on at Dexter. And when I got on at Dexter, well, I stood by the door, in front of the window. It was really hot, and I felt really bad that day, the day being hot, and I was tired. I had worked two places. And I was standing up on the side as you come in the back door. I stood right there, I stood up in the back on this other side just as you enter into the door. And this white couple was sitting there until the bus got to the Square and they got off. And standing up, I began to feel so bad, so I sat down and hoisted the window. When I hoisted the window he looked at me, but I didn't look up. I just looked out the window. He said, "You, I'm talking to you." So I had to look up. Finally, I went on back, and he said, "I am talking to you, all of you n*****s know we got a law in Alabama." And this is what I would like to know, when they charge us dimes on the buses ...
Voice Actor, Prosecutor: We object to any argumental part by the witness.
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: Can I speak?
Voice Actor, Judge: Just a moment. You're supposed to answer any question. Don't give us any discourse. Just answer the question.
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: Because we all feel we need the buses.
Voice Actor, Judge: Just a moment. We are not going to hear any sermon from you. You're here as a witness. Just answer the question.
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: I believe you all feel like we ought to work together. Don't you want to hear what I have to say?
Voice Actor, Judge: No.
Voice Actor, Defense: Just answer any question.
Emilye Crosby: And that’s Fred Gray trying to get her back on track.
Voice Actor, Defense: You had numerous experiences?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: Correct, I had. And I am just fed up with these bus drivers. I am just fed up to my neck.
Voice Actor, Judge: Do you understand you are on the witness stand now, and I have told you to answer the questions that are asked you? I will tell you what I can do if you won't do that.
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: All right.
Voice Actor, Defense: Don't volunteer any information. Answer the questions I am asking you.
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: All right.
Voice Actor, Defense: You have had numerous incidences, have you not?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: Yes, I have.
Voice Actor, Defense: And you have observed other people have numerous incidences?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: Yes, sir.
Voice Actor, Defense: Unpleasant experiences with bus drivers?
Voice Actor, Henrietta Brinson: Sure. I have.
Emilye Crosby: Mrs. Brinson is not the only person to try to, you know, say something about her experiences on the buses. And the judge is really very narrow in what he wants to hear. And, you know, there are other examples from the testimony. But, you know, this is a good example. And this is what I like to use with my students to really help them understand that this is a far cry from just simply being separated from white people, right? And this is why, you know, African Americans are trying to come up with a better approach to sharing the buses with whites, whether it's integration or something else. It's this constant abuse and violence that they're trying to change. And it's so pervasive that even if it hasn't been directed at you, you've heard it directed at somebody, you know somebody it's been directed at. And the consequences can be really dire, you know? That you can be injured, you can be hurt, you can be killed. And, you know, unfortunately, we still see that where African Americans are killed for not staying in the place that whites in authority want them in.
Emilye Crosby: Yeah, my students are always just stunned and shocked when they read this testimony. It's just—it really grabs their attention. Any sense that they have that they—I mean, I guess it just reinforces, you know—so the letter from the Women's Political Council, I mean, it's really good at shattering a lot of their assumptions, but it's not a devastating document. It doesn't, you know, really force them to confront the worst of white supremacy, right? But when they read these, then they start to understand that this is really violent, that it's not only is it something new to them, but it's just—I mean, it's hard for them to even imagine, you know? They can't imagine being treated that way, most of them.
Emilye Crosby: And it really does say, you know, it's like this is an entirely different picture of events. You know, they're like, "Oh, Rosa Parks. She didn't move from her seat," right? And instead, people are being yelled at, called racist names, attacked. Yeah, so it really catches my students' attention. And they're angry, they're shocked, they're outraged, they're pissed off. And they want to know more. They really get into it. It really catches their attention and, you know, it makes them angry.
Emilye Crosby: So the Montgomery bus boycott is really fun to teach with students, because they have such a clear picture of it that they come with. I can almost predict what students know about the Montgomery bus boycott. And it's such a great, perfect reflection of the master narrative. But the reality is just a really rich, complicated, engaging, inspiring story. And there are just remarkable, wonderful primary sources that make it easy for students to go from the one to the other. I can give students a handful of primary sources, and they can go from a very stereotypical master narrative version of the Montgomery bus boycott to a much more complicated story that gets them started on understanding central themes of the civil rights movement in under an hour. It just lends itself to one, students as historians; two, you know, quickly grasping—using, grasping the potential of primary sources, and actually using primary sources to come to new interpretations.
Emilye Crosby: You know, people point to different things as the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Some people talk about the Brown decision by the Supreme Court. But the Montgomery bus boycott is the first mass movement of the modern civil rights movement. I think for me, one of the things that's just most important about it is the role of ordinary people. The fact that it's successful because it involves so many people in Montgomery, and there's so many ways that people contributed. It's just really a tremendous accomplishment to have such an incredibly well-organized community for more than a year. If you think about that, what it takes to sustain anything for that level of time, but for African Americans to sustain that in the face of all kinds of violence and intimidation and economic coercion and the misuse of the legal system and the misuse of the political system, it's really remarkable.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Emilye Crosby is a professor of history at SUNY-Geneseo. She is the author of A Little Taste of Freedom: The Black Freedom Struggle in Claiborne County, Mississippi, from UNC Press, and the editor of Civil Rights History from the Ground Up, from the University of Georgia Press.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials about slavery and the civil rights movement that include award-winning films and classroom-ready texts. You can find them online at Tolerance.org.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. We began by talking about slavery for two seasons, and now we’re tracing that legacy of oppression—and resistance—into the present.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Crosby for sharing her insights with us. And to the actors who reenacted the scenes and documents in this episode:
- Tara Shay Ellis as the voice of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson and the Store Maid.
- Cheyenne Singleton as Willie Mae Lee Crews, who interviewed the Store Maid.
- Chason Marvin as Attorney Fred Gray,
- And Jon Darby as Judge Eugene Carter.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We also heard:
- Crystal Johnson as Henrietta Brinson,
- Dr. Aaron Hagler as the prosecutor in Henrietta Brinson’s testimony, as well as Attorney Walter Knabe during Claudette Colvin’s testimony,
- And Trinity Ross played the part of Claudette Colvin.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Movement Music" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. Our interns are Miranda LaFond—who helped to produce this episode—and Amelia Gragg. Kate Shuster is our executive producer.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our theme song is ”The Colors That You Bring” by Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is from their album Where Future Unfolds. And from Wendel Patrick's JDWP Tribute.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you’ve heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
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- Zinn Education Project, Emilye Crosby
- The Washington Post, How history got the Rosa Parks story wrong
- Washington University in St. Louis, Interview with Rosa Parks (video)
- King Institute, Browder v. Gayle, 352 U.S. 903
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- BlackPast, Women’s Political Council of Montgomery
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- Washington University in St. Louis, Interview with Jo Ann Robinson
- King Institute, Testimony in State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr.
- Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Understanding and Teaching the Civil Rights Movement
- BlackPast, E.D. Nixon (1899-1987)
- Washington University in St. Louis, Interview with E.D. Nixon (video)
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- BlackPast, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (1925-1978)
- AFL-CIO, A. Philip Randolph
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- King Institute, Montgomery Bus Boycott
- Montgomery Advertiser, Holt Street Baptist celebrates bus boycott anniversary, converts old church to museum
- King Institute, MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church
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- SNCC, Septima Clark
- Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street
- Jeanne Theoharis, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
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- NPR Hidden Kitchens, Meet The Fearless Cook Who Secretly Fed — And Funded — The Civil Rights Movement
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