Several years ago, the Green family held a reunion in Montgomery, Alabama. My husband’s parents grew up in the nearby town of Selma, in the heart of the segregated South. They both traveled North in the late 1940’s, separately, to Louisville, Kentucky. They had grown up on adjoining farms, and after finding each other in a new city, soon fell in love and married. They were together more than fifty years.
They were not inclined to talk about the past, but gradually I discovered that both of them had left their homes as internal refugees– that their lives would not only have been blighted, but taken from them if they had stayed. It’s not my place to tell their story here. It’s a story told many times by refugees and survivors, and still held in living memory.
My husband’s cousin, Robin, had organized a tour of Montgomery for us out-of-towners, with a trip to the Rosa Parks Museum. The museum contains video screens and exhibits, including a city bus from 1955, the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
“It takes me back,” Mrs. Green said.
I tried to imagine my gracious mother in law growing up in that Selma, where ‘back of the bus’ was not history but everyday misery.
It’s consistent with human nature that when physical pain ceases, we are able to forget. Emotional pain is harder to let go of, but the demands of the present draw us away from dwelling on the past. Forgetfulness is a blessing as much as a curse. It’s consistent with human nature that we don’t want to believe how bad things really were. Living in a more integrated society, where most people most of the time don’t run a gauntlet of danger and humiliation feels normal. They say veterans of battle don’t talk about it much. Re-living the violent and painful aspects of the civil rights struggle takes a toll on veterans of that struggle and on the innocence of younger generations.
But it’s necessary, in order to understand the civil rights movement, to know how bad things really were.
The following paragraphs on the Montgomery Bus Boycott come from the book ‘At the Dark End of the Street’, by Danielle L. McGuire…
There were at least thirty complaints by African Americans in Montgomery in 1953, indicating a growing sense of impatience with the grim conditions on city buses. Most of these complaints came from working-class black women who made up the bulk of Montgomery City Lines’ riders, over half of whom toiled as domestics. With a median salary of just $523 per year, domestics could not afford automobiles and had no choice but to ride the city buses to and from the white homes in which they worked. Their workplace could be just as dangerous: domestic workers faced sexual and physical abuse by their white employers.
African American women constantly complained about the atrocious treatment they received on the buses. Gladys Moore remembered that Montgomery’s bus operators treated black women “just as rough as could be…like we are some kind of animal.” Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State and member of the increasingly militant Women’s Political Council, argued that the mistreatment on the buses was degrading, shameful and humiliating. “Black Americans,” she insisted, were “still being treated as… things without feelings, not human beings.” Bus drivers, Robinson recalled, disrespected black women by hurling nasty sexualized insults their way. Ferdie Walker, a black woman from Fort Worth, Texas, remembered bus drivers sexually harassing her as she waited on the corner. “The bus was up high,” she recalled, “and the street was down low. They’d drive up under there and then they’d expose themselves while I was standing there and it just scared me to death.”
At the Dark End of the Street, Danielle L. McGuire, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, p.59
This book is one of many on the civil rights movement. McGuire focuses on the role of women who organized for justice against rape of black women by white men, which was a constant menace and seldom investigated, never mind prosecuted. With the police more likely to be offenders than protectors, black women lived in a community under siege by terrorism, with no end in sight.
There’s the lite version of the civil rights movement, that says ‘back of the bus’ was a seating arrangement, but Martin Luther King had a dream and the nonviolent marches so impressed white people with their moral authority that equality happened. The reality is complicated, and confronting it opens old wounds, and reveals how recent and fragile is the foundation of racial justice that supports us today. How easily it could all collapse.
Dismantling the most outrageous and visible institutions of segregation in the South was a work of decades, a battle fought on many fronts, with allies in many places. It was brought to the court of public opinion, not only in the US but internationally. It was expedited by black veterans of WWII, who had fought fascism abroad and could no longer resign themselves to oppression here. It was fought by women and children on the front lines. It was fought with a tough, pragmatic non-violence– not just because it was led by Christian ministers, but because armed resistance would have brought mass murder as a response.
Studying the past is painful, but necessary if we are to understand the present. The use of language as a weapon against the black community has something to teach us now when we face denial about the power of words. The complacency of a white majority, who were manipulated by fear and lies, who allowed atrocious acts to be committed against their neighbors and fellow Christians, shows a truth about human nature we would rather not see.
But if we are to make sense of the actions of the civil rights marchers–ordinary people, who were willing to risk their lives for a seat on the bus– we have to understand the state of despair that sparked such courage.
Danielle McGuire has a website here, for more on her fine book and historical research.
MORE: I’m reading a news story on Yahoo about the President and Attorney General giving speeches about the nonviolent work of Dr. Martin Luther King, calling for tolerance and giving to the community– then I check the comments– a solid wall of hate and racism. Let’s hope the trolls will stick to their keyboards and not pick up guns, but reading the comments shows me why Dr. King’s work matters so much and why his work is not done.