The Fable and the Truth about the Montgomery Bus Boycott

As a historian I have repeatedly cringed at the manner in which our society takes historical moments and alter them with the sole intention of weaving a good story. In the alluded to reconstructions, the facts oftentimes do not matter to those telling the story. We’re actually fortunate if names, places, and even the context of the event have not been changed. The danger of such fallacious reconstructions is not only the fact that it is a lie, but also it renders those who could have learned so much from the actual event totally ignorant to what actually occurred.

Considering that today is the 60th Anniversary of Rosa Parks sitting on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus, it is an appropriate moment to look at the ‘tale’ that has been routinely told about this moment and the glaring omissions that are found in what amounts to a Disney movie story line.

I am certain that you have all heard the ‘fairy tale’ of a tired seamstress named Rosa Parks deciding on her own that she would not surrender her seat so that a white passenger would be able to sit. Children books and the ‘educators’ who use them then talk about the arrival of Martin Luther King and the bus boycott and the rest is history.

Make no mistake about it, there are elements of truth to be found in this ‘tale’. However, as is the case with most historical portrayals, there are glaring omissions to be found.

  • Rosa Parks was not a meek and mild seamstress. She was actually a political activist who served as E.D. Nixon’s (a local Civil Rights leader) secretary for both the State and local Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
  • Parks was actually sitting in the colored section of the bus. However, it was the customary rules of the bussing system that once the white section filled, Blacks had to give up their seats in what amounts to a shrinking Black section to be found at the rear of the bus.
  • It was E.D. Nixon’s idea to use Mrs. Parks’ case to challenge segregation in the Montgomery Alabama bus system.
  • Routinely ignored in the reconstructions of this moment are the contributions of the women of the Women’s Political Council who were already prepared to execute a boycott of the bus system. One must remember that the primary riders on the buses were African-American women who used the transit system to go into to white areas for day work, a euphemism for being a maid.
  • It was the Women’s Political Council, headed by Joanne Robinson and Maryfair Burkes, which conquered the Herculean task of notifying the entire African-American community in less than 10 hours to not ride the local buses; they were calling for a one-day boycott of the transit system.
  • After the unfathomably successful one-day boycott, the politicized segment of the Montgomery community assembled at the Holt Street Baptist Church where a relatively new young preacher named Martin King Jr., spoke and called for the boycott’s continuation.
  • The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became a nationally known figure as a result of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

It is my fear that our preference for ‘fairy tales’ silences the historical lessons that should be learned from events such as the Montgomery bus boycott. Rendering our activist community less powerful than it could be were it resting upon an accurate understanding of our historical past. So on this date, I think that it is important that we celebrate not only Rosa Parks and MLK, but also the women of the WPC, E.D. Nixon, and all of the nameless, but critically important, women who found alternative means of travel, including walking, to fulfill their employment obligations that were critical to their family’s material survival.

James Thomas Jones III

©Manhood, Race and Culture, 2015.





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