(NewsNation) — The history of to racial equality cannot be told without mentioning Rosa Parks and the Alabama bus boycotts. A new book from Dan Abrams explores that pivotal moment through the lens of the last surviving civil rights pioneer from that era — attorney Fred Gray.
Gray represented Parks during her trial, and represented Martin Luther King, Jr. during his trial as a result of the subsequent bus boycotts.
In “Alabama v. King,” Abrams and Gray recount the way the civil rights fighters used the legal system to dismantle segregation.
Below is an excerpt from “Alabama v. King,” which is available May 24.
At about 9:15 p.m. on January 30, 1956, twenty-seven-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was advocating nonviolent protest to approximately two thousand people at the cavernous First Baptist Church. Dr. King told the enthralled audience, “If all I have to pay is going to jail a few times and getting about twenty threatening calls a day… I think that is a very small price to pay for what we are fighting for.” Little did he know that literally as he spoke, that price was becoming significantly higher.
A white supremacist had driven to his home that night, walked up half the steps of his white clapboard house in a quiet neighborhood and tossed a live stick of dynamite onto the front porch. His wife, Coretta Scott King, and a friend had been in the living room, and their newborn daughter, Yolanda, asleep in a back room. When the dynamite exploded a few moments later, windows were blown out and portions of the house destroyed or in shambles.
Upon hearing of the incident, King immediately rushed home and was relieved to find his wife, her friend and his daughter all uninjured. A furious and fearful crowd of about three hundred quickly gathered to support the King family, and with the remnant smell of explosives still wafting through the night air, Dr. King stepped out onto his only partially standing porch and declared: “We believe in law and order. Don’t get your weapons… We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies.” With those words, a potentially volatile situation had been defused.
The local authorities never arrested the perpetrator of the crime, but less than two months later they did arrest Dr. King for organizing the peaceful protests he was championing the night his house was bombed. The trial that followed would introduce the young minister to America.
It had required an extraordinary, unexpected and fortuitous chain of events to place the young Dr. King in the spotlight of history. It was not a role he had pursued. “When Martin Luther King came to Montgomery in September 1954,” remembers Fred Gray, his friend and first civil rights attorney, who coincidentally had been admitted to the Alabama bar that same week, “he didn’t have civil rights on his mind. In fact, the preacher before him had gotten run out of town because he was too liberal.”
But after civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for violating a city ordinance by refusing to give up her seat on a crowded bus to a white person, a small group of Montgomery’s leading Black citizens and ministers had urged a one-day bus boycott to protest the way Black Montgomerians were being treated on public transit. The protest was scheduled for December 5, the day of Parks’s trial. “This was a long time coming,” remembers Fred Gray. “This wasn’t just an isolated incident. We had been complaining about the way Black people were treated on the buses for a long time. But the bus company had done nothing at all about it. Initially, we would have settled for minor changes; but they just ignored us. They treated us like we had no rights. So when Mrs. Parks was arrested, the community just said, ‘This is it. We’re going to do something about it right now. They are going to give us respect or we are not going to continue riding their buses.’”
At her thirty-minute trial on December 5, Rosa Parks pleaded not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and violating a local statute. Fred Gray defended her. She was convicted and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs. Gray immediately appealed the conviction. But by that time the protest had begun.
Now, the concept of a citywide boycott was seriously discussed for the first time. In 1953, a two-week-long boycott of city buses in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had led to compromise that made the middle seats in the buses first come, first served. “Unfortunately,” Gray recalls, “there were some Black leaders in Montgomery, including some Black ministers, who felt that before we filed a lawsuit to desegregate the buses we ought to try to get the city to agree to something less than that. Personally, I didn’t have any problems with that because I felt certain the city was not going to be willing to make any sort of deal. The city’s attitude seemed to be, if you give them a seat, they’ll take the whole bus.”
Montgomery’s Black community comprised only a small part of the electorate—less than 8 percent of the city’s forty thousand Black residents were registered to vote—and yet in recent elections those Black votes had proved key to victory. Politicians needed those votes, so, at the least, they had to act like they were listening. In 1954, Professor Jo Ann Robinson, president of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council, an activist organization for Black women, had sent a letter to Mayor William Gayle, noting that “Three-fourths of the riders of these public conveyances are Negroes. If Negroes did not patronize them, they could not possibly operate.” She requested a variety of changes to the existing regulations. These included the right for Blacks to be seated from back forward on a first-come, firstseat basis and that “Negroes not be asked or forced to pay fare at the front and go to the rear of the bus to enter.”
City officials agreed to other requests such as that buses stop at every block in the Black section of the city, as they did in white sections, rather than every other block. The officials also agreed to investigate claims that certain drivers were abusive. But seating remained the unsolvable problem. Generally, the front seats were reserved for white people, Blacks sat in the back—but the middle sixteen seats had no permanent designation. Drivers were empowered to determine who would sit where—with the understanding that white people would always be given priority. Each driver operated his bus essentially as a fiefdom; he could order seated Black passengers to give up their seats to whites, and if they refused they were subject to arrest.