Charles Marsh: "The gradualism King would lament in his 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” was the gradualism he embraced in the first days of the Montgomery protest."

Charles Marsh: To call King's initial demands forceful is an overstatement.  Even to call them demands is a stretch.  In his public letter of December 8, 1955, to the national office of the National City Buslines in Chicago, King called for fair access to public accommodations and proposed three changes: 

1.  Courteous treatment of bus drivers.

2.  Seating of Negro passengers from rear to front of bus, and white passengers from front to rear on first-come-first-serve basis with no seats reserved for any race.

3.  Employment of Negro bus operators in predominantly Negro residential sections.(1)

King shocked both blacks and whites when he noted that these requests were not intended to challenge state segregation laws but were consistent with these laws.  No one apparently had asked King about his intentions.  In his mind, the boycott was about minor adjustments in seating policies for Negroes using city buses--policies that made little difference to Dexter Avenue members anyway since they mostly traversed city streets in their own automobiles.  Contesting segregation was a separate matter--" for the legislature and the courts," King said.(2)  "All we are seeking is justice and fair treatment in riding the buses."(3)

Not surprisingly, the core group of activists considered King's modest proposal a slap in the face of their own steady assault on Jim Crow.  For its part, the national NAACP (National Assoication for the Advancement of Colored People) voiced concern that the Montgomery organizers—as represented by King—were settling for something far short of integration.  What was the purpose of Parks's act of civil disobedience if not to defy segregation laws?

Still, King refused to go any farther.  To the Baptist preacher with the downtown parish, segregation seemed too entrenched a tradition to call into question.(4)  The gradualism King would lament in his 1963 “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail” was the gradualism he embraced in the first days of the Montgomery protest.

King’s position was appreciated by many white residents, even though the appreciation hardly turned sentiment into shifts in public policy.  The editors of the Montgomery Advertiser expressed sympathy for King's proposal, especially since black ridership had dropped 75% in the few days following the December 5 boycott.  "If the grievance is confined to that, then attention should be given to it promptly."(5) Letters to the editors were overwhelmingly sympathetic to the black cause as rendered by King's requests.  A white man writing from the hamlet of Geraldine praised King's "plausible and sensible plan"; after all, he added, the Negro would "continue to accept and occupy the seats in the rear of the bus", aside from the stated exceptions.(6)  A white woman wrote, "I have yet to find one person who feels that it is right that a Negro be made to stand that a white person may sit."(7)  One reader said that she was a regular on city buses and it made her sick to see the discourteous treatment so often shown to Negro riders.  "In a city where so many Christian churches flourish and where one constantly hears that the right way of life for the South is to be found in the 'separate but equal' doctrine, I find it difficult to understand how so many people can knowingly condone the injustices of the present system, which I know from experience is not equal even in courtesy."(8)  A few whites went even further than King by calling the whole framework of southern segregation into question.(9)

***

King’s strategy of moderation was not greeted with the same enthusiasm by white city officials.  Police Commissioner Sellers promptly announced that bus service would be cancelled in most Negro districts at 6:00 PM. on December 9.  Sellers promised to enforce the city's boycott ordinances--once he had a chance to dust them off--and to arrest black cab drivers if they failed to require the minimum rate of forty-five cents.  Many black cabbies had agreed to offer free or cheap rides to the protesters.


(1) "Letter to the National City Lines, Inc.," in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., volume III.

(2)  King cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 24.

(3)  The Montgomery Advertiser, December 9, 1955. The Montgomery Advertiser reassured white readers, "The Rev. M. L. King, Jr. pointed out that his group is not interested in changing present segregation laws but he asked for modifications of practices under the law."  [The Walking Tour, p. 332]

(4)  Montgomery Advertiser, December 9, 1955.

(5)  Cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 26.

(6)  Montgomery Advertiser, December 15, 1955. The same letter offered a glimpse into the posturing of some white customers which King had either been ignorant of or refrained from exposing. "I have seen on many an uncrowded bus and have seen Negroes having to stand when there were open seats because some stupid white has a seat toward the rear of the bus and will not move forward to permit the Negro to sit."  [Montgomery Advertiser, December 15, 1955].

(7)  Cited in David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 28.

(8)  Montgomery Advertiser, December 12, 1955.

(9)  Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: American In the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988),  p. 144.

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