Hidden history leads to bus boycott, 1963 march

Third of an on-going series

In this installment of our series about African Americans who fought for dignity and equal rights on the U.S. railways as railroad sleeping car porters and maids, we explore how union organizing and the cancelled 1941 March on Washington led to later developments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The proposed 1941 March on Washington for Jobs and Equal Participation in National Defense resulted in Franklin D. Roosevelt issuing an Executive Order 8802 that established the first Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). In exchange, A. Phillip Randolph cancelled the march.

March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963 (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

However, this was not the final course of action. In fact, it would be the preliminary foundation for the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and for the 1963

March on Washington.

There is a rich history to be found in the struggle for civil rights, but Edward D. Nixon is seldom mentioned when, in fact, he was a key figure in organizing the strategies that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. He headed Montgomery’s local chapter of the NAACP and worked closely with Rosa Parks to challenge the city’s segregationist laws.

Nixon relied on the brotherhood’s principles of unionizing and protesting unfair practices; the process would spur a boycott of the area’s bus lines and be processed through legal channels.

When Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a White passenger, Nixon implemented a planned strategy to provide bail and then called Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher at Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, to support a boycott. Nixon, King and Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy created the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to meet with city commissioners and bus company officials to end segregation.

After these efforts failed, on December 8 the MIA issued a formal list of demands for courteous treatment by bus operators; first-come, first-served seating for all, with Blacks seating from the rear and whites from the front; and Black bus operators on predominately Black routes. The demands were rejected, and the now-famous Montgomery Bus Boycott began.

A. Phillip Randolph (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

The protest lasted for more than 380 days. During that time African Americans were harassed, threatened with unemployment or fired, and endured violent attacks.

City officials obtained injunctions against the boycott in February 1956 using a 1921 law prohibiting conspiracies that interfered with lawful business. Eighty boycott leaders were indicted, including Nixon and King.

King’s home was bombed; two days later Nixon’s home met the same fate. The boycott persevered, and eventually the city was forced to lift the bus segregation laws.

On June 5, 1956 the federal district court ruled in favor of Browder v. Gayle, declaring bus segregation unconstitutional. In November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Browder v. Gayle, striking down laws requiring segregated seating on public buses. The desegregation decision arrived in Montgomery the same day King and the MIA were presenting their case to the circuit court, challenging an injunction against the MIA carpools.

After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Executive Order 8802 expired and WWII ended. This encouraged the March on Washington of 1963. Dr. King, having proved his leadership qualities, was asked to speak at the 1963 March on Washington where he delivered the famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

However, he was not the leader of the march as many assumed. “It’s often remembered as Martin Luther King’s march, but it was actually A. Phillip Randolph who was the official leader,” said historian William Jones. “The 250,000 people who showed up to the march [of whom 60,000 were White] did so because people liked Randolph and [supported] the spirit the Sleeping Car Porters have initiated over the last 30 years.”

The historic event took place on August 28, 1963. It was organized in fewer than three months after President John F. Kennedy’s announcement in June that he would submit a civil rights bill to Congress.

Dr. Randolph’s march basically was an attempt to transform a Black Southern civil rights movement into a national movement for human rights, jobs, freedom and anti-segregation. Bayard Rustin was named chief coordinator of the march. Porters, packinghouse workers, and autoworkers raised money, organized buses and trains to bring people to Washington, D.C.

The Washington police force mobilized 5,900 officers, and the government mustered 6,000 soldiers and National Guardsmen as additional protection. But the crowds were calm and the protest remained nonviolent.

The march was supported by leaders of the “Big Six” civil rights organizations: James Farmer, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Whitney Young, National Urban League.

“The March on Washington was important because it showed the ability to link Black communities and Black movements across regional differences for jobs and freedom,” Jones said.

Ironically enough, 1963 was the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. One of the major themes of the rally was that emancipation promises remained unfulfilled. The marching began at the Washington monument and ended at the Lincoln Memorial, where representatives of the sponsoring organizations delivered speeches.

There was a list of demands from the sponsors called simply “Ten Demands,” which included a fair living wage, fair employment policies, and desegregation of school districts.

The highly publicized March on Washington helped gather momentum for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Related story: 

Hidden history: Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters

Women helped build porters’ Brotherhood

Next week: Although we had expected this installment to conclude the series, the writer’s research has compelled him to continue the story. We will share what he found with our readers in the next issue.


Ivan Phifer welcomes reader responses to ivan.b.phifer@gmail.com.