By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
American history is highlighted by dates which symbolize great triumphs, launched movements, the beginning or end of wars and the lives of great men and women.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 launched the American entry into World War II.
The World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked on Sept. 11 2001,
On November 22, 1963 and April 4, 1968, the lives of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., respectively, were ended by assassins.
On July 20, 1969 man first walked on the moon.
In Montgomery, Alabama, 60 years ago on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a street bus, launching a boycott, the civil rights career of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the beginning of a liberation movement to end Jim Crow.
Originally designed as a one-day event on December 5, 1955, the boycott of the Montgomery city buses lasted one year and 16 days. Organizers believed the boycott would make its point on December 5, but the empty buses and the rare instance of Black solidarity, prompted them to continue until policies ending segregation and abusive treatment of Black bus passengers were enacted.
Sharon Campbell Waters was five-years old on the day the boycott started.
Born in Montgomery, her parents, were, or would be close friends and allies of the people history records as the heroes and villains before, during and years after.
Waters, 65, is now the Vice President of Organizational Development for STOP, Inc. She is one of the ever-shrinking number of people who grew up “around the corner” from Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., and others who played key roles in the planning and day-to-day operations of the Montgomery Boycott.
Waters has lived a fulfilled life, graduating from Hampton University, the U.S.C. School of Film, raising a family, but always researching and looking back at that crucial time in history.
She has a treasure trove of mementoes she shares with nosey reporters and friends, to include Christmas cards and letters bearing the names of the children of Martin and Coretta Scott King.
Waters has many books and articles related to the boycott, including a program, where Dr. King preached his final sermon at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church before moving on to fight nationally for justice.
Copies of the announcement of meetings at various churches in Montgomery before the boycott began and in the days afterwards, and books and personal memories are among her collection.
“The boycott taught Black people that we could use powers we did not know we had to bring about change,” said Waters. “It not only transformed the Black people who fought for freedom and justice, it also transformed White people. It helped them realize that their culture, laws and policies were devised to oppress other people and they had to face the changes we were seeking.”
Waters’ personal connection and research of the events, she said, revealed to her that certain aspects of the boycott may have been overlooked by historians.
“The boycott did not come out of no where. There had been a series of events which brought Blacks and Whites to that to point,” said Waters. “Because of the humiliation directed at Blacks, especially women who rode the bus, the idea of boycott was talked about since 1949.
“There are many important people who must be cited when you talking about the history of the boycott,” she said.
“Women, Black and White, and the organizations they ran, supported the boycott and helped it achieve its goals,” Water continued. “Alabama State College and its faculty and staff supported it, despite fears of its funds being cut or people fired.”
JoAnn Gibson Robinson is known for her role of promoting the event by passing out flyers she, with the help students and college staff, composed, copied and distributed throughout the city shortly after Parks was arrested.
In 1949, shortly after she migrated from Georgia to join the Alabama State faculty, she was traumatized during a confrontation with a White bus driver who tried to force her to the back of the bus.
“When she got off the bus she later said she cried,” said Waters. “That’s when she joined the Women’s Political Conference and urged the well-connected women in the group to organize a boycott.
“But the Black community could not organize the will or the unity, fearing economic retributions from the city’s political power structure, especially the preachers who felt they would lose their standing in the eye of White power brokers.”
Virginia Durr was a White southern belle born in a family which had owned slaves and had close ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
Raised in Birmingham, Durr enrolled at Wellesley College, a woman’s college in Massachusetts which admitted Black women in the 1930s. During each meal the women had to “rotate” to a different table to mix with fellow students.
Durr was forced to sit at a table with a Black student or go home, she noted in her biography, “Outside the Magic Circle.” She would later abandon her view of Black people and how the South treated Blacks.
She married Clifford Durr, a lawyer for the Roosevelt
Administration and they became advocates for economic and civil rights while in Washington, D.C. By the late 1940s, the couple found themselves back in the South, in Montgomery, and he used his legal expertise to assist
Blacks before the court, although his sympathies for Black rights were not as deep as his spouse’s.
Virginia Durr was also a member of the White branch of the United Church Women which had national Black and White branches. Durr spearheaded an effort in Montgomery to get the “Colored” and “White” branches of the organization to dialogue, despite reservations from their husbands. She would play a key, but little known, role in helping to transport Black maids to work, who supported the boycott.
Prior to December 1, when seamstress and activist Rosa Parks made her mark in history, there were other
Black women who challenged bus companies’ racist policies.
Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith also refused to comply and were arrested and jailed. All filed civil cases. But the court dragged their feet. The NAACP and other civil rights groups kept pressing such cases and other legal matters in higher courts.
In the spring of 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools illegal, giving Blacks the footing to challenge racist voting laws, elections and employment policies.
Later that year, Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Black Chicago youth, was brutally beaten and killed in Money, Mississippi for reportedly flirting with a White woman. His death drew national ire.
“So all of these events were coming together to create the motivation for Blacks to take a stand, once Rosa Parks did so on the bus,” Waters said. “Her arrest set in motion the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.
“Sixty years ago, I don’t think anyone knew how much change would come about, starting right there in my hometown.”
Part 2: Rosa sits down, and Black Montgomerians choose to stand up ñ secretly.