My wife, Cathryn, and I were on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama for five weeks this winter, trying to learn a little about the region. We drove from Biloxi to Montgomery on Monday. We got into our hotel about 3:00, but it was raining so hard we decided not to try seeing any of the civil rights sites, our reason for going there.
When I was a boy in Vancouver, Washington during World War II, there was just one black student, Johnny, in our grade school. Always seeming happy, he was mostly alone. He sometimes walked past our house.
My mother asked me about Johnny and noted that he seemed alone, reflecting that it wasn’t fair. He was effectively shunned. I have always remembered that feeling of it not being fair to shun a person simply because he or she has darker skin.
In December 1955, news of the Montgomery bus boycott came into the local headlines. I was a 20-year-old college student, far from the South. I remember thinking how it wasn’t fair the way those “Negroes” were being treated.
Mentally, I was on their side, but with school, then an early marriage and a growing family I could see no way to help their cause with the boycotts, sit-ins, and marches that proceeded for the next thirteen years. Like many others, I felt far away and helpless. It was only after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 that I found some ways to help.
Civil Rights Memorial
We had a good weather forecast for Tuesday, and sure enough, the sun was out; all was bright and shiny. First thing we did was go to the visitors information center and catch a bus that looked like a trolley for a tour of downtown.
Our driver/tour guide was a black man who looked to be in his 40s, with a Holy Bible on a low platform to his right and a heavy southern accent. Between his accent and use of regional idioms, it was difficult to catch all of what he said.
He was knowledgeable of the history of Montgomery and stated both the honorable history (“This is the street where the Freedom March from Selma to the stairs of the State Capital took place in 1965”) and horrific (“This is the location of the slave markets”) with the same matter-of-fact tone. When pointing out the square where the slave market was, he described the holding pens and how slaves were displayed and auctioned. Gave us chills.
When the tour concluded, we walked several blocks to the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was part of—indeed, the founder of—the Civil Rights Memorial and Center. The Memorial, out on the sidewalk, was designed by Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Memorial. There are two components to it: a curved, convex, polished granite wall about eight feet high, and, sitting in front of it, a seeming table, also of granite, circular, about eight feet in diameter.
Water streams down over the face of the wall in a thin, even stream. Similarly, water flows in a broad, thin stream out of the center of the table and over the edges. On the wall is an inscription of one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous lines from the Bible: “…until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream….”
The circumference of the table is inscribed with specific dates. There are 40 deaths in this record with a brief description of how each person was killed in the struggle for civil rights, beginning with Emmett Till in 1955, which because of the brutality, enraged American progressives. It ends with King’s assassination in 1968.
The other notations are of Rosa Parks’ arrest, President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Congress’ passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. After King’s notation is a notable space, because, as Maya Lin said, “It isn’t over.”
We came to the Memorial looking for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had the same address. While I was in Portland in the late 80s and early 90s, I avidly read the newspaper about a lawyer by the name of Morris Dees, who sued a convicted killer and his white supremacist organization for wrongful death, the civil equivalent of a prosecution for murder.
Dees won, showing that the entire white supremacist organization was liable. The award was a monetary judgment so huge that it bankrupted the organization and all the people in it. Unfortunately, the deterrent didn’t stop the problem, and there are now close to 1350 hate groups in America.
Morris Dees is one of my heroes. I wanted to say hello to his staff and thank them for their courageous work toward racial justice. Cathryn and I stepped inside the Memorial Center and were met by a white security officer, who, at our request, set about clearing the way for our unannounced visit to the offices of SPLC.
We were ushered into the small exhibit that elaborates on the names on the granite table outside. There are also blown-up photos that we’ve all seen of officers using police dogs, fire hoses, and clubs to attack protesters, so the deaths of the freedom fighters are clearly set in a context. Now, over 50 years later, equality before the law and in public accommodations in Montgomery are proudly proclaimed and protected as a part of the social order.
Inside the SPLC offices, a gracious black woman, the director of donor relations, gave us a generous review of the history of the organization.
On the way to a restaurant, we stopped by the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. We looked upon the exterior and paid our respects to this sacred place. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church from 1954 to late 1959. He began right out of theology school, at age 25. In 1955, he was asked to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery.
Rosa Parks Museum
The Rosa Parks Museum and Library is part of Troy University, and is located near the bus stop at which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. As we were admitted, we were told it would be 15 minutes until the “next re-enactment.” We couldn’t imagine what a re-enactment might look like.
In a small auditorium, a young, nice-looking, well-spoken black man showed a three-screen video of commentary by people who were in Montgomery at the time of Mrs. Parks’ famous defiance of the local social order. They described in some detail the humiliation involved in the regulations and procedures involved in keeping blacks segregated from whites on the city buses.
Black anger had been growing over this situation for some time. There had been meetings of black leaders with city and bus company officials on this subject. In addition, Rosa Parks was active in the local branch of the NAACP, and she had recently attended a training session in Tennessee about nonviolent methodologies to accomplish desegregation.
In another room, we stood, as if bystanders on a sidewalk, looking at the side of a 1953 model city bus as it would have looked on December 1, 1955. In it were clear images of people sitting or standing on the bus. A narrator began talking about what the bus driver was doing, picking people up and letting people off. We could hear the muted roaring of the diesel engine, the front door opening and closing.
Then, Rosa Parks got on the bus. It was explained that the front several rows of seats were reserved exclusively for whites. Blacks were expected to sit in the back. They could sit in the center section, unless a white person of any age had no seat in front, in which case, a black person had to give up their seat.
Mrs. Parks, then 42 years old, recognized the driver as an irascible one with whom she had had a run-in twenty years earlier. Along with Parks, the bus picked up a number of whites. Several blacks stood up to give over their seats, including the man sitting next to Parks, next to the window. Park slid over into that seat.
The remaining standing whites began complaining to the driver that she wouldn’t get up. Some of the black men hurriedly left the bus. The driver, from his seat, told Parks to give up her seat. She said, “No.”
He got up, went back to her and demanded that she give up her seat. She said, “No.”
He said something like, “Well, then I’m going to have to have you arrested.”
She said, “You may do that.”
In the meantime, the whites on the bus were in a serious hubbub; the blacks were stone silent. The bus driver then got off the bus, found a phone and called the bus station, explaining the situation. Bus HQ called the police.
Time went by; tension continued to rise. The police arrived, got on the bus, and asked Parks to leave her seat. She wouldn’t, and they said they were going to have to arrest her. She replied, “You may do that.” She was taken by the arm and removed. She didn’t resist.
That was the end of the bus scene. Rosa Parks was arrested for disorderly conduct, taken to the police station and fingerprinted. She was allowed, after some early resistance by the police, to call a black community leader, who made bail for her, and she left with him. She went to court and was found guilty on December 4, 1955.
The Montgomery bus boycott began the next day. It lasted 381 days. Because most of the riders were black and walked to their jobs instead of riding, the bus company lost $3,000 a day. The black community counts the boycott as successful, but the company and the city never caved in. The boycott ended when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to segregated public transportation as a result of a related lawsuit issued from the same community.
The importance of the boycott was in the perseverance shown by the black community and the amount of organization it took to maintain it. The boycott became the model and springboard for the numerous protests that followed, all over the South, as to public accommodations.
There was much more detail to the scene, but this is a taste of what we experienced as viewers of this grave incident. It was enormously impactful. We stood there in dread, as the minutes ticked slowly by, watching, as this woman, virtually isolated from everyone else on the bus, courageously took herself and the whole system right over a cliff, the bottom of which she didn’t know.
After we left the Rosa Parks Museum, Cathryn and I said to each other, several times, the equivalent of something like, “Holy cow!” We were stunned by Parks’ courage.
The next morning, we had breakfast at a large, well-appointed hotel in downtown Montgomery, a quiet and peaceful place. Our waitress was a large, pleasant, self confidant black woman, with whom it was easy to strike up a conversation. She had been raised in Chicago but had moved to Montgomery with her husband ten years ago.
For weeks in the South, I had been dying to ask somebody an important question, and this woman seemed a good candidate: “What is your experience with race relations and work opportunities here as opposed to Chicago?”
“Oh”, she said, “it’s better here.” She elaborated on some of her life experiences. She had been called, she said, “the N word” in Chicago, but not in Montgomery. At one point, all three of us were in tears as she described her personal struggles and those of her family. It was another powerful personal experience.
Montgomery’s civil rights history is vital to America’s continuing cultural growth. I personally have done little to improve American race relations, maybe helped around the margins a little. However, remembering the feeling I had as a boy—of it not being fair to shun or deride people for the color of their skin—has caused me to at least do something to help. And the need for fairness touches my heart still today.
Pete Grundfossen (close-up)
NOTE: Peter Grundfossen is retired in Salt Lake City. During his career he advocated for the dignity and needs of America’s minorities while Assistant Dean of Students at the University of Utah, a member of the Utah Legislature, a Model Cities Director, Deputy Director of the Department of Community and Economic Development, a practicing attorney in Utah, and a human services lobbyist in Oregon.