Last December residents of Montgomery, Alabama, the historic "Cradle of the Confederacy," witnessed the rise of another confederacy. The difference between the old and the new could hardly be more obvious; but underlying both was the same determination, and the same potentially explosive situation.
The determination of Montgomery Negroes in their demand for equal rights on the city's busses has not faltered throughout 90 days of personal sacrifice and economic hardship. Since December 5th, when a 42-year old Negro seamstress was convicted under Alabama law for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger, the city's 65,000 Negroes have carried out a bus boycott that has been virtually one hundred percent effective.
The Negroes do not demand an end to segregation; they simply want buses to operate on a first-come, first-served basis, with Negroes filling a bus from the rear and whites from the front. In addition, the Negoes are asking for Negro drivers in Negro areas, and for more courtesy from white drivers.
For almost three months all efforts at compromise have failed. Both sides, convinced they are right, have refused to capitulate. The transit company meanwhile has suffered abortive losses. Until last week the situation looked like a question of survival of the fittest. Then civil authorities discovered a little used 1921 statute which prohibits "conspiracy, combination or agreement to interfere or hinder business." A Montgomery grand jury promptly delivered 100 odd indictments, all for Negroes and including 24 clergymen.
The law may or may not hold water in court. Such anti-boycott legislation is certainly no clear constitutional breach; similar laws have been upheld many times. Nevertheless, many observers feel that, regardless of the legal outcome, the City of Montgomery has played directly into their opposition's hands. Coming at a time when the boycott seemed at a hopeless stalemate, the indictments have served only to encourage Negro passive resistance. Last Friday, Negoes walked Montgomery streets in a mass 24-hour pilgrimage to prove their solidarity, even in the face of legal action.
The impressive display of Negro unanimity throughout the boycott has surprised those who feel that the average southern Negro is a genial Aunt Jemima who "knows her place and respects her white folks." The Montgomery boycott is unique and significant. It points to a unmistakable trend in Dixie, an increasing awareness by the Negro of his plight and a determination to do something about it. Ironically, the Negroes in Montgomery have appropriated the same weapon which White Citizens' Councils have successfully employed in Mississippi and other states--economic strangulation. It works both ways.
The fears of those who saw potential violence in the Montgomery situation, however, have so far proved fortunately in error. Credit is due to both sides, but particularly to the Negroes. Their leaders are soft-spoken, educated men who have carried on a carefully organized campaign. As one indicted clergyman says, "We must use the weapon of love." Another, asked about the future of the transit company, said: "It can run buses as long as it wants to--but it will run them without Negroes until it gives us justice."
Justice for Negroes is hard to come by in Alabama though, and a solution for the problem defies everyone but the cloistered idealist. Battle lines are drawn, and only sensitive hands can avoid pulling the hair trigger. Many doubt that Alabama's governor, James E. "Big Jim" Folsom, has the required delicacy. Nonetheless, the Governor has taken a step which is in itself encouraging. By calling for a biracial commission to study race relations throughout the state, Folsom has provided a means for sane communication between Negro and white leaders. Lack of communication is a fundamental cause of misunderstanding in the South.
Only if the real Negro leaders are included on the commission will it have any chance for success. Moreover, the commission can accomplish nothing if both sides are not willing to compromise in favor of the gradual readjustment of a 300-year old social philosophy. For many moderates, there is a tragic number of "if's" in Alabama.