Charles Marsh: By April, King was showing signs of physical exhaustion. His old seminary friend, J. Pious Barbour, was shocked by King’s appearance when the two men visited in Ohio. “He is not the King I knew,” Barbour said. “He has grown twenty years in about five. He is almost to a fault exceedingly retiring; he wanders around in a daze asking himself: Why has God seen fit to catapult me into such a situation?”(1)
Then on April 23, while King was out of state, the news broke that the United States Supreme Court had affirmed a federal appellate court decision striking down segregated seating on the municipal buses of Columbia, South Carolina. Fearing more legal complexities, the management of the Montgomery City Lines announced its decision to comply with the federal court order. City bus drivers were ordered to immediately stop the enforcing separate seating policies. The vice president of the bus company even resolved that all drivers prosecuted by the city for carrying black riders would receive the full legal support of the company.(2)
Mayor Gayle, however, working under a different set of expectations, showed little sign of conceding defeat. Reacting with the fury of a man betrayed, Gayle promised white Montgomerians that city commissioners would stand their ground. It did not matter to him at all that the Montgomery City Lines had thrown in the towel or that the U. S Supreme Court had ruled against segregated seating in South Carolina.
City commissioners hurriedly filed suit in the state court, hoping to receive a temporary restriction against the local bus company's decision to desegregate its services. But the momentum of the protest had decidedly shifted. At a five-hour hearing in the U. S. District Court in Montgomery on May 11, the city's suit was rejected in a two-to-one vote.
The court's decision to strike down the city's segregated seating policies introduced the Montgomery protest and the nation to an unlikely ally in the black struggle—a white Republican, Alabama native and Southern Baptist churchman named Frank M. Johnson whose great-grandfather had served as a captain in the Confederate army.(3) Johnson had already helped abolish the Alabama poll tax. He would later order the state to reapportion its election districts and integrate its school districts and he would preside over the 1966 trial that brought convictions to the killers of Viola Liuzzo, the white civil rights volunteer, murdered in March 1965 near Selma.(4) Judge Johnson, in whose court the appeal had been filed, had argued that segregation in public facilities violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.(5) Defying enormous social pressures at a time when local courtrooms throughout the South were closing ranks to protect the status quo, Johnson had affirmed the central legal claim of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and thus, acted in accordance with his high republican standards of esteeming law and country over equivocation and prejudice.(6) "The [court/law] will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of race," he wrote.
White Alabamians were fit to be tied. "I would have had my right arm cut off…before I [reacted] as you did," a man wrote from in Union Spring. "I trust that you get on your knees and pray to God All Mighty to forgive you for the mistakes you have made."(7) Judge Richard Rives, who had cast the other affirmative vote, would not escape the condemnation of segregationists either. One Alabama newspaper complained that the judge had betrayed his southern heritage and "forfeited the right to be buried in Confederate soil."(8)
With deep gratitude for the District Court's decision but uncertain about its implementation, King and the Montgomery organizers agreed nonetheless to continue the boycott. For nothing seemed likely to change in the short run, as there would be no immediate implementation of the decision. The same city commissioners who had not been moved by the bus company's change of policy were also unbowed by federal court's ruling. Determined to fight the battle to the end, Mayor Gayle pledged to appeal the ruling of the Fifth Circuit Court to the U.S. Supreme Court.
(1) Barbour cited in Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 76.
(2) David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 77.
(3) Through it all, Johnson remained a member of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery and would keep his letter there. But in 1961, when an interracial group of visitors was denied entrance to the sanctuary on Sunday morning, he stopped attending regular services, and his wife became a Unitarian. Throughout the South, Unitatarian and Unitarian Universalist Churches welcomed all races and were the exception to the rule of the closed church, even the sensibilities of the Swedenbourgian tradition struck most black southerners as unappealing. [Jack Bass, Taming the Storm: The Life and Times of Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr. and the South's Fight Over Civil Rights (New York: Doubleday, 1993), p. 27.].
(4) Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights, edited by Charles D. Lowery and John F. Marszalek (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), p. 283.
(5) Johnson cited in Jack Bass, Taming the Storm, p. 110.
(6) "[Frank] Johnson had the most devout patriotism of anybody I've ever known," said his friend and law clerk Sidney Fuller. Fuller cited in Jack Bass, Taming the Storm, p. 113. The Johnson court's ruling was just the beginning of a series of enormously influential decisions it would offer. Journalist Frank Bass noted, "They struck down segregation and discrimination in almost every facet of Alabama life." Jack Bass, Taming the Storm, p. 116.
(7) Cited in Jack Bass, Taming the Storm, p. 112.
(8) Cited in Jack Bass, Taming the Storm, p. 113.