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Local News in Virginia

Part II: Observing 60th Year of Montgomery Bus Boycott

By Leonard E. Colvin

Chief Reporter

New Journal and Guide

Before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery city bus, launching a liberation movement, Blacks wrote letters to city officials and owners of the Montgomery Bus Line, Co. to voice their displeasure about the abuse they faced riding the buses each day.

However, Black residents eventually realized the only tactic to overturn the abuse was an economic boycott.

Inspired by the Brown Decision of 1954 and the tragic and racist killing of 14-year-old Emmitt Till in August 1955, Blacks in Montgomery took a stand on December 5, 1955.

This month, 60 years later, residents of Montgomery and around the nation are celebrating the boycott, its organizers, and its legacy as the catalyst for the modern Civil Rights movement.

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A local woman, Sharon Campbell Waters was born and raised in Montgomery and was only five-years-old when the Montgomery Boycott began. She is one of a shrinking number of eyewitnesses alive today who, through the years, have grown to understand the significance of the action in her hometown.

“What is rarely mentioned in the rhetoric of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is that the Movement was actually set in motion in 1946 by a group of African-American women, mostly educators at Alabama State College (now University), who organized the Women’s Political Council to address political, economic, educational, and social issues that directly affected Black citizens in Montgomery,” said Waters. “In 1949, Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson, a Council member, suffered humiliation when she was ordered to move from a fifth row seat on a Montgomery city bus and threatened when she did not move fast enough. Later, when Mrs. Robinson assumed the presidency of the Council, she proposed the idea of a boycott,” Waters continued.

By the time Mrs. Rosa Parks, trained in non-violent social protest, was arrested on December 1, 1955, the plan had already been set into motion. Overnight, Mrs. Robinson and a few students at Alabama State prepared notices of a boycott of Montgomery’s buses, and the 300-member Women’s Political Council distributed the notices for the one-day boycott on December 5.

According to her memoir, “The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women who Started It,” Black leaders had hoped the boycott would remain a secret to White Montgomery; however, one lone Black woman, a domestic loyal to her “White lady” carried the notice to her job and the secret was out.

“The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed and special committees were established,” Waters said. “The main one focused on transportation to help the walking public. This committee was led by my father, Alfonso Campbell, Sr., Supervisor of Transportation at Alabama State. He worked all night Friday to complete the mapping of the routes (for the carpools) to get workers to all parts of the city. In her memoir, Mrs. Robinson said ‘the pickup system was so effectively planned that many described it as comparable in precision to a military operation’.

“My father was a World War II veteran, a Master Sergeant, whose principal duty was to direct and supervise the overall activities of a motor pool on a regimental level in the Battle of Normandy, and the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the European African Middle Eastern Theater Ribbon with four Bronze Stars for his service. He literally ran the risk of being exposed, and fired by Alabama State – a state supported college – to procure 12 station wagons or ‘rolling churches.’ After several other dealerships refused to get involved, Capital Chevrolet Company did and sold 12 cars to the MIA for $2085.71 per car.”

Waters continued, “After working all night to organize the car pool, the ministers failed to select one person who would head the boycott. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon, December 5, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the leadership post. Once the boycott began, I saw very little of my father.”

The boycott would continue for 13 months before an agreement was reached that ended the segregated bus seating.

*****

Campbell recalled in news articles years later her father was frequently ticketed by White police seeking to intimidate him and others, to no avail. Thousands of dollars were raised by churches across the nation; boxes of shoes were sent to Montgomery; Blacks walked, rode mules and buggies rather than ride the city buses.

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The ranks of Montgomery’s White Citizen Council, an organization dedicated to maintaining segregation by imposing economic pressures on Black Americans, increased. The homes of Dr. King and Dr. Ralph Abernathy, his right hand partner, were bombed, and other leaders were indicted for conspiracy.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was successful, not only because of the 50,000 Blacks in Montgomery who forged a collective alliance against the atrocities of segregation, but also because of White supporters, like Virginia Durr, who gave rides to Black women walking to their jobs, particularly out in the country club area where the distances were great.

According to Virginia Durr’s autobiography, “Outside the Magic Circle,” the mayor of Montgomery issued a plea for the White women to “stop taking their Black maids home because they could break the boycott if the White women would stop taking their Black maids home, or even stop hiring them.”

Durr’s husband, Clifford, a prominent attorney, was asked by E.D. Nixon, the head of the Montgomery NAACP, to call the jail on December 1 to see why Mrs. Parks had been arrested, after Nixon was denied a response upon the recognition of his voice by police as being that of a Black man.

Waters’ mother, Lucy B. Campbell, a librarian at Alabama State, created a scrapbook, located today in the archives of the Ollie L. Brown Afro-American Heritage Special Collection, Alabama State University, chronicling the experiences King and other boycott participants.

By 1961, Waters’ mother had decided that she had literally had “enough of Montgomery.”

Waters reflected, “In May, 1961, my mother and father were locked in a church all night because hundreds of Klansmen threatened to bomb the church where Rev. King was speaking at a Freedom Riders’ rally. My brother and I learned about the incident while watching television! My uncle came to our house at midnight, took us to his home, and I just knew we were orphans! However, President Kennedy intervened, and miraculously there were no injuries that night.”

Waters moved to Portsmouth in July, 1963 and two months later, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four young girls attending Sunday School.

“My father left Alabama in 1964 and joined my mother at Hampton Institute where she was a librarian, and he became an Assistant to the Dean of Men. The irony was that Mrs. Parks had also left Montgomery in 1957 to work at HI (Hampton Institute now University) where she was the Hostess at Holly Tree Inn on the campus,” Waters said.

The school has an exhibit of Parks’ time in Hampton on display in its museum.

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(See affiliated story in this issue on page 6 by Hampton University President Dr. William Harvey on Mrs. Rosa Parks’ tenure at Hampton Institute (now University).

*****

Reflecting now on her experiences of 60 years ago, Waters read a quote of Rev. King’s from a Christmas card her family received in December 1967 from the King family. Ironically, it was to be Dr. King’s last Christmas. He was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. It read:

“The task is stern and provocative. Among the moral imperatives of our time, we are challenged to work all over the world with unshakable commitment to wipe out the last vestiges of racism. Another grave problem that must be solved if we are to live creatively is that of poverty on both the national and international scale. A final problem that demands solution is finding an alternative to war and human destruction.”

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