A Transportation Lawyer Looks at Dr. Rev. King, Jr.

January 17, 2011 at 8:54 AM 1 comment

Embedded within in our federal Constitution is the concept of a “right to travel,” for one is not truly free and independent from tyranny unless one can leave, move about, or choose to stay put.  The right exists against both public and private restrictions.  Not surprisingly, transportation is often the focus of, and means to, greater societal change.

Martin Luther King’s rise to the national stage of the civil rights movement came about after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the middle of the bus on the evening of Dec. 1, 1955.   She was ordered by the driver to take a seat at the back of the bus, when white riders boarded and needed seats.  (The law in effect at the time divided the bus down the middle, with whites in front and blacks in the back.  However, the line moved back if more whites boarded, and more seats were needed.)  By refusing to give up her initial seat in the middle, Mrs. Parks violated the segregation laws governing the City of Montgomery’s bus system at that time.

She was convicted of the offense a few days later, however, the lawyers advising the NAACP, including Thurgood Marshall, felt that the state court process would mire an appeal.  Her arrest had already ignited local outrage.  At the same time, Montgomery’s African-American community came together under Dr. King’s leadership and that of other local clergy, including Rev. E. D. Nixon, who headed the local NAACP chapter, to form the Montgomery Improvement Association.  This occurred at a mass protest held at the Holt Street Baptist Church on Dec. 5, 1955.  Dr. King was a young minister in the City at that time, and Rev. Nixon felt that a fresh voice was needed to deal with the City fathers.

The African-Americans’ protest group had a list of demands for the transportation system—that the bus system (which was privately owned and operated) should hire black drivers, that seating should be on first come, first serve basis, and that drivers treat all customers courteously.

Till the group saw progress on these demands, it and its supporters agreed to boycott the City’s bus system.  The boycott lased a year.  Riders found alternative means of transportation—walking, carpooling, taking cabs, bicycling and even using mules to get to their jobs— anything but taking the bus.  The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians and cyclists.  Meanwhile, the protesters filed a federal court lawsuit against the mayor, under 42 U.S.C. 1981 and 1983, the civil rights laws, charging that the segregated system was unconstitutional.

The boycott crippled Montgomery’s bus system, which could not exist on white riders’ fares alone.  The City responded with its own version of economic protectionism to get them back on the bus. The City threatened to fine black cab drivers who charged just 10¢ to passengers, the same as the bus fare (instead of the usual 45¢).  The City arrested blacks for “hindering” a bus.  The City urged insurance companies to drop insurance of the owners of cars used as carpools, and got an injunction against the carpools’ operation.  Lloyds of London re-insured them.  The City even threatened an antitrust-type lawsuit against the organizers of the “illegal” boycott.  Dr. King was arrested, and his house fire-bombed.

On June 4, 1956, the federal district court ruled that Montgomery’s enforcement of the state’s segregation law pursuant to its Public Service Commission rules for buses was unconstitutional, in Browder v Gayle, 142 F. Supp. 707 (1956).  The ruling was affirmed, and later, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the civil rights ruling to stand.  Dr. King, Rev. Nixon, the NAACP and the supporters of the boycott got more than they requested— full integration of the city’s buses.  Dr. King’s speech to 2,500 supporters at the church on the evening of December 20, 1956 may be read at http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/statement_on_ending_the_bus_boycott/

The next day, at 6 am, Dr. King and others peacefully boarded an integrated bus, and the boycott was ended. The Montgomery Advertiser reported: “The calm but cautious acceptance of this significant change in Montgomery’s way of life came without any major disturbances.”

In 1957, Dr. King became the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in 1958, he wrote a self-reflective book detailing the experience, and lessons learned, titled Stride Toward Freedom.  It’s a great book, I highly recommend it.  The protesters’ successful bus boycott gave the civil rights movement one of its first very tangible victories, from which others followed, based on the non-violent techniques and ethics preached by King, following in Ghandi’s footsteps.

In 1964, the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers) nominated Dr. King for the Nobel Peace Prize.  When Gunnar Jahn made his presentation speech at the Swedish Academy, awarding to Dr. King the Nobel Peace Prize, it was the bus boycott that he described, in the context of the Ghandian methods of non-violent economic measures which Dr. King successfully employed there.  Dr. King was the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace prize, at age 35.


Entry filed under: Civil Rights, Land Use, Local Government, Politics, Transportation. Tags: .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Sharon Roerty  |  January 17, 2011 at 11:46 AM

    This is good food for thought considering that many currently serving in Congress want to restrict our right to travel by limiting federal funding solely to highways and bridges. Despite the fact that we all pay taxes, this view of transportation effectively puts motorists on the front of the bus and everyone else under the bus. This is a very good time to remember the bold and dignified leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King. Thanks Janine.


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January 2011



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