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Letter To Mayor Gayle

March 26, 2016

I reread Jo Ann Robinson’s memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott And The Women Who Started It, because it contains one of the great letters of 20th century American history.  I’ll have more to say about the book in a later post.  Here I want to present the letter and offer a few observations about it.

Harriet St.

Montgomery, Ala.

May 21, 1954
Honorable Mayor W. Gayle

City Hall

Montgomery, Alabama

Dear Sir:

The Women’s Political Council is very grateful to you and the City Commissioners for the hearing you allowed our representative during the month of March, 1954, when the “city-bus-fare-increase case” was being reviewed. There were several things the Council asked for:

1. A city law that would make it possible for Negroes to sit from back toward front, and whites from front toward back until all the seats are taken.

2. That Negroes not be asked or forced to pay fare at front and go to the rear of the bus to enter.

3. That busses stop at every corner in residential sections occupied by Negroes as they do in communities where whites reside.

We are happy to report that busses have begun stopping at more corners now in some sections where Negroes live than previously. However, the same practices in seating and boarding the bus continue.

Mayor Gayle, three-fourths of the riders of these public conveyances are Negroes. If Negroes did not patronize them, they could not possibly operate.

More and more of our people are already arranging with neighbors and friends to ride to keep from being insulted and humiliated by bus drivers.

There has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of busses. We, sir, do not feel that forceful measures are necessary in bargaining for a convenience which is right for all bus passengers. We, the Council, believe that when this matter has been put before you and the Commissioners, that agreeable terms can be met in a quiet and unostensible manner to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Many of our Southern cities in neighboring states have practiced the policies we ask without incident whatsoever. Atlanta, Macon and Savannah in Georgia have done this for years. Even Mobile, in our own state, does this and all the passengers are satisfied.

Please consider this plea, and if possible, act favorably upon it, for even now plans are being made to ride less, or not at all, on our busses. We do not want this.

Respectfully yours,

The Women’s Political Council

Jo Ann Robinson, President

First, the date: May 21, 1954.  That’s four days after the US Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision, finding racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional and ordering states to desegregate “with all deliberate speed“. It’s also more than 18 months before Rosa Parks’ arrest (Dec. 1, 1955) that precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott.

Second, the elaborate formality and politeness of the letter.  Prof. Robinson (she taught English at Alabama State) had grown up in Georgia, had taught in Texas, and had lived in Montgomery since 1949.  She was acutely aware—as were all the leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott—of the limited space in which Negroes (to use the language of the time) could operate politically,  and the restrictions on their behavior if they were to have any hope of acting effectively. Due and elaborate deference to white folks, particularly those in any position of public power, was the order of the day.

Third, the quiet (because as yet unexploded) bombshell at the beginning of the fourth paragraph: “There has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of busses.” Students of social change, take note.  Change takes time; change takes organizing; change takes planning.  By Dec. 1955, Prof. Robinson, along with scores of leaders (89 were eventually arrested and charged with conspiracy to violate the state’s anti-boycott law) from dozens of Black organizations in Montgomery, had already spent years organizing and preparing, not just for a bus boycott, but for a bus boycott that would work, a bus boycott that would win, a bus boycott that would dismantle generations of racial segregation on public transportation in Montgomery.

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