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Recalling the 'No' That Shook the South

PARTING THE WATERS: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS, 1954-63: First of Five Parts. Next: How Martin Luther King put J.F. K. in the White House

December 14, 1988|TAYLOR BRANCH

She was among the leaders of the women's group who served on the Rev. Martin Luther King's new political affairs committee at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Robinson called her closest friends on the Women's Political Council. All of them responded like firefighters to an alarm. This was it.

Robinson and her friends met about midnight at their offices at Alabama State, each under the pretext of grading exams. They drafted a letter of protest. They revised the letter repeatedly, as ideas occurred to them.

"Until we do something to stop these arrests, they will continue," the women wrote. "The next time it may be you, or you or you. This woman's case will come up Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses on Monday in protest of the arrest and trial."

Approved Idea

Robinson decided to call E. D. Nixon to let him know what they were doing. He instantly approved Robinson's idea of the one-day bus boycott, saying that he had something like that in mind himself. He told her that he planned to summon Montgomery's leading Negroes to a planning meeting the very next day, at which both the legal defense and the boycott would be organized. Robinson was the first to know.

About 50 of the Negro leaders assembled in the basement of King's church, where, after a protracted and often disorderly argument about whether or not to allow debate, they approved the plans more or less as Nixon had laid them out in advance. All undertook to spread the word.

Nixon was up before dawn on Monday morning. So were the Kings, M. L. drinking coffee and his wife, Coretta, keeping watch at the front window, nervously waiting to see the first morning bus. When she saw the headlights cutting through the darkness, she called out to her husband and they watched it roll by together.

The bus was empty! The early morning special on the South Jackson line, which was normally full of Negro maids on their way to work, still had its groaning engine and squeaky brakes, but it was an empty shell. So was the next bus, and the next.

In spite of the bitter morning cold, their fear of white people and their desperate need for wages, Montgomery Negroes were turning the City Bus Lines into a ghost fleet. King, astonished and overjoyed, jumped into his car to see whether the response was the same elsewhere in the city. It was. He drove around for several hours, watching buses pass by carrying handfuls of white passengers.

After Rosa Parks was convicted that morning, E. D. Nixon walked out of the courtroom to post bond for her release. The sight that greeted him in the courthouse hall shocked him almost as much as the empty buses at dawn: a crowd of about 500 Negroes jammed the corridor, spilling back through doors and down the steps into the street.

Not a Fluke

Nixon, who was accustomed to find there only a few relatives of the accused, knew that the empty buses had been no fluke. The jostling, and the sight of still more worried-looking policemen with shotguns, rattled even Nixon temporarily. He tried to disperse the crowd, promising to bring Rosa Parks outside unharmed as soon as the bond was signed. Some voices shouted back that the crowd would storm the courthouse to rescue both Parks and Nixon if they did not emerge within a few minutes. Something was new in Montgomery.

Mass Meeting

All the Negro leaders knew it long before they reassembled that afternoon to plan a mass meeting. That evening at Holt Street Baptist Church they formed the Montgomery Improvement Assn., elected King its president, and decided to extend the bus boycott indefinitely.

That evening a crowd of about 15,000 people surrounded the packed Holt Street Baptist Church as King took the pulpit.

He stood silently for a moment. When he greeted the enormous crowd of strangers, who were packed in the balconies and aisles, peering in through the windows and upward from seats on the floor, he spoke in a deep voice, stressing his diction in a slow introductory cadence. "We are here this evening--for serious business," he said, in even pulses, rising and then falling in pitch.

When he paused, only one or two "yes" responses came up from the crowd, and they were quiet ones. It was a throng of shouters, he could see, but they were waiting to see where he would take them.

'People Get Tired'

"You know, my friends, there comes a time," he cried, "when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression." A flock of "yeses" were coming back at him when suddenly the individual responses dissolved into a rising cheer and applause exploded beneath the cheer--all within the space of a second.

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