Our Next President’s Debt to a King

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 15, 2009, issue of January 23, 2009.
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Oh happy coincidence: The congruence of this year’s Martin Luther King Day on the 19th of January and the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States on the 20th offers so rich, if too brief, a respite from the grim headlines of these times. Truth be told, without Dr. King there would be no President Obama. So it is well to pause and recall King’s first political foray:

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., a 42-year-old black seamstress named Rosa Parks left the Montgomery Fair department store late in the afternoon for her regular bus ride home. There were 36 seats on the bus, and all of them were soon filled. Twenty-two black riders took the rear seats and 14 white people sat in the front. When a 15th white passenger got onto the bus, the driver called for the four black people in the row just behind the 14 seated whites to move to the rear, where they would have to stand. That was not merely the custom in Montgomery; that was the law. And when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, the driver, exercising his emergency powers to enforce the segregation codes, arrested her. She was taken to the police station, where she was booked, fingerprinted and jailed.

King later would describe what Rosa Parks did that day in these words:

Mrs. Parks’ refusal to move back was her intrepid affirmation that she had had enough. It was an individual expression of a timeless longing for human dignity and freedom. She was not planted there by the NAACP, or any other organization; she was planted there by her personal sense of dignity and self-respect. She was anchored to that [bus] seat by the accumulated indignities of days gone by and the boundless aspirations of generations yet unborn.

When Rosa Parks’s mother learned of her daughter’s arrest, she contacted E. D. Nixon, the longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and perhaps the most politically potent black man in Montgomery. Nixon knew well that Rosa Parks was in immediate physical danger, violence then being the all too frequent response to violations of the race laws. And Nixon, in turn, called Clifford Durr, a white patrician lawyer and Rhodes scholar. Together they went to the jail and posted bond for Parks. And together they proposed to Parks that here, at last, were the makings of a case that could shatter the laws of segregation throughout the South.

Parks consulted with her mother and with her husband, a barber who was terrified at the prospect of converting this isolated incident into a political cause. But she nonetheless decided to go forward, and late that Thursday evening, when a black woman named Ann Robinson, a professor of English at Alabama State, the youngest of 12 siblings and the first to have gone to college, learned of what had happened, she convened the Women’s Political Council, most of whose members were active in King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and that very night they mimeographed a leaflet that said, “The next time it may be you, or you or you. This woman’s case will come up Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses on Monday in protest of the arrest and trial.”

On that fateful Monday, Martin and Coretta King were up before dawn. Taylor Branch, in his masterful biography of King, “Parting the Waters,” describes what happened:

Coretta [kept] watch at the front window, nervously awaiting the first morning bus. When she saw the headlights cutting through the darkness, she called out to her husband and they watched it roll by together. The bus was empty! The early morning special on the South Jackson line, which was normally full of Negro maids on their way to work, still had its groaning engine and squeaky brakes, but it was an empty shell. So was the next bus, and the next. In spite of the bitter morning cold, their fear of white people and their desperate need for wages, Montgomery Negroes were turning the City Bus Lines into a ghost fleet. King, astonished and overjoyed, jumped into his car to see whether the response was the same elsewhere in the city. It was.

Later that same Monday afternoon, the Montgomery Improvement Association was founded, and King was elected its president. That Monday evening, a crowd of perhaps 10,000 blacks gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church, and the 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. delivered there his very first political address. “There comes a time,” King said, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression…. We are here because we are tired now.”

And his tired congregation, swollen to nearly 40,000 former bus riders, walked to work, or stayed home, or rode in one of the 150 cars whose owners lent them to the boycott. Through the cold months of winter, they persisted. When King was arrested, they persisted, and when his house was bombed, they persisted, and they did not stop even when the entire leadership of the boycott was arrested.

Through the winter, through that spring and summer, through the fall and on into a second winter, for 381 days, the black residents of Montgomery prayed with their feet. And finally, on December 20, 1956, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the judgment of the U. S. District Court declaring the laws requiring segregation of the buses unconstitutional.

King, Parks, Nixon, Durr, Robinson and 40,000 tired black citizens who conquered their fear and ignored their fatigue: And now, and therefore, ladies and gentlemen, Barack Obama.


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