First off, let me say there are many folk who could give a speech better than I. On top of that, there are many better men and women who walked the halls of this fine institution who should be standing here before you instead. Highlander Folk School shines on as a beacon for equality, a garden that continues to grow the best civil rights activists and labor organizers in the country. I am very happy to be back here and honored to speak on the bus boycott that occurred in Montgomery just a few years back. Seems people are under the impression these days that the boycott happened because of me. I would like to assure you this is untrue. I can’t take credit for the crusade that occurred in Alabama. I was just the last straw. There were others who would not give up their seat on a bus and were arrested long before me. On the day it happened to me, I just couldn’t bear the thought of giving up my seat on a city bus to another white man and standing in the back for the rest of the long ride home. I would rather be hauled off in handcuffs than face that humiliation and degradation again. As Mrs. Virginia Durr once wrote to you, Highlander gave me a taste of freedom and equality; I thought of this place while the officers dragged me off the bus and to the station.
Look ahead a single year, and our world is changed for the better. A boycott occurred, and it succeeded. After a single year, no black man or woman has to feel the burn of embarrassment or the injustice of segregation on a city bus again. The boycott didn’t succeed because we were organized, though that was part of it. It didn’t succeed because we were angry, though that was part of it as well. It succeeded because we had perseverance. Organization defines the road, anger gets you on the road, but making the long journey to the end of the road, that is perseverance.
Activists like Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, demonstrated what perseverance really is, and indeed so did her members. Mrs. Robinson wrote Mayor of Montgomery W. Gayle in 1954, with a polite request for more fair policies on city buses. She did not even ask for desegregation, but instead requested that blacks begin sitting at the back of the bus and whites begin sitting at the front, and when they meet in the middle and all the seats are occupied, that would be it. She asked that the buses make more stops in black neighborhoods and that we wouldn’t have to pay at the front of the bus and make the humiliating trudge to the back entrance.
Her message fell on deaf ears, for that same “honorable” judge she wrote to would two years later speak at the rally of the Central Alabama Citizens Council about how to preserve segregation. His presence supported and offered legitimacy to ten thousand angry white racists encouraging the killing of black men, women, and children. Jo Ann Robinson would not take no for an answer, however. Briefly mentioning the possibility of a boycott in her letter, she later organized it and made it a reality in December of 1955. She and her WPC members worked tirelessly into the early morning of the fifth to distribute tens of thousands of leaflets calling for a boycott all over Montgomery. Mrs. Robinson and fellow activists were arrested quickly after the movement began, but even in the face of harassment, imprisonment, and threats of violence, they did not yield.
If any two men showed us true strength of character and steady perseverance, it was the two reverends, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. They held Montgomery Improvement Association meetings every week until the boycott succeeded. Dr. King was unequivocally our leader. If I was the spark, he was the fire. He, under the same death threats and mistreatment we all faced and experienced, ignited a passion in our hearts that helped us see this thing through. At one MIA meeting, Dr. King said, “With every great movement toward freedom there will inevitably be trials. Somebody will have to have the courage to sacrifice. You don’t get to the Promised Land without going through the Wilderness. You don’t get there without crossing over hills and mountains, but if you keep on keeping on, you can’t help but reach it. We won’t all see it, but it’s coming and it’s because God is for it” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaks to the Crowd). We did what Dr. King called us to do. We kept on keeping on. We braved the wilderness. Dr. King, in his wisdom and his own depth of perseverance, inspired us to stay the course.
Then there was everyone else; every man, woman, and child who refused to ride the Montgomery buses. This boycott began as a one-day movement. Instead, it lasted a year, because the black folk of Montgomery united and persevered together. At the first mass meeting of the MIA, Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy had to fight their way into the church through a joyous crowd of seven thousand people. In February 1965, activist Bayard Rustin noted that “42,000 Negroes have not ridden the busses since December 5” and that two men “walked 7 miles and the other 14 miles” to work each day (Bayard Rustin’s Diary). They weren’t the only ones walking those distances, either. Moreover, during this period dozens of taxi drivers and car-pool drivers were arrested. Yet we did not yield. All the while white folks talked about using “guns, bows and arrows, sling shots and knives” to “abolish the Negro race” and act on white people’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers” (Handbill from Central Alabama Citizens Rally). Yet we did not yield. We persevered together. As one black maid said during the second month of the movement, “When you do something to my people you do it to me too” (Interview About the Boycott). That is true unity of spirit.
Our spirit went unbroken, and in November 1956 the Supreme Court upheld what we fought for in Browder v. Gayle. Bus segregation was rejected as unconstitutional and the next month buses in Montgomery were integrated. It was a glorious day when I again road a city bus. True equality is still a long way off. We are not out of the wilderness yet. However, the boycott victory has kept us going. As Dr. King said, “Let us continue with the same spirit, the same orderliness, with the same discipline, with the same Christian approach” (Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaks to the Crowd). There will be a day when prejudice and hate are not tolerated in this country. It is only a matter of time. Until that day, we will continue to persevere. We draw closer to the Promised Land.