What Really Happened in Montgomery ?
An Article by Bill Onasch From the February, 1997 Issue of Transit Truth, a Rank-and-File Newsletter For Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1287, Kansas City

The Montgomery Bus Boycott, launched in December, 1955, is generally credited as the birth of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement. We’ve all heard the story on television by now. One day Rosa Parks, tired from work, took a seat in the front of the bus reserved for whites. When she refused to move she was arrested. The young Dr Martin Luther King immediately responded and organized the successful boycott that ended segregation in public transit. 

But this simple story is a bit too simple. Rosa Parks didn’t just happen along and spontaneously decide to challenge the rules. She was Secretary of the local branch of the NAACP. But, like a number of other members, she was dissatisfied by that organization’s go-slow-and-work-through-the-courts approach. She was part of an informal group of mainly Black trade unionists who were looking for faster and more effective tactics. Their union experience had taught them organizing skills, and familiarized them with activities such as picketing and boycotts. 

Their main strategist was E.D. Nixon, an activist in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union who also had contacts with Black unionists around the country. These connections later proved valuable in not only spreading the word about the boycott throughout the nation, but also in raising money to send a fleet of station-wagons to Montgomery to provide some needed transportation. 

The transit system was a focus of Black resentment in Montgomery—as was the case in a number of other cities, including Kansas City. Segregated seating was only one of their grievances. Montgomery’s bus drivers were 100 percent white male and there were numerous complaints of rude treatment of Black passengers. 

Nixon worked up an outline of a boycott campaign. But he felt it was important to involve better known and “respectable” leaders as public spokespersons. Several prominent clergymen were approached but turned them down. Dr King, after some initial hesitation, agreed to take charge of the campaign that launched him into national prominence. 

Dr King proved to be a capable organizer, an effective spokesman, and showed great personal courage. During the boycott he was arrested and his house was fire-bombed. But it in no way detracts from the appreciation of Dr King’s accomplishments to also acknowledge the indispensable contributions of  “ordinary” working people such as E.D. Nixon. ¨