Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Murder of Emmett Till and the Montgomery Bus Boycott

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I describe the impact of Emmett Till's murder and the Montgomery Bus boycott.

The savage beating death of a 14-year-old African American boy named Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi August, 28, 1955, horrified much of the world and did much to mobilize the Civil Rights Movement in the second half of the 1950s. A Chicago native, Till traveled south to visit his extended family in the Mississippi Delta when, one week into his trip, he and several friends were standing outside a white-owned grocery in the tiny town of Money. Till told his unbelieving friends that he had several white friends in the North, including friendships with white girls. The friends dared him to go inside the store and flirt with Carolyn Bryant, a white woman who worked at the cash register. Accounts conflict on what happened next, with some claiming he whistled at Bryant, others that he reached for her hand and asked her out, while according to a third version he said, “Bye, baby,” as he left the store. The cashier’s husband, Roy Bryant, returned from a road trip three days later and vowed that he would “teach the boy a lesson.”

Just after midnight August 28, 1955, Bryant and his step-brother J.W. Milam arrived at the house of Moses Wright, where Till was staying. They threw him in the back of a pickup truck and drove him to nearby Sunflower County, where they beat him until his face was unrecognizable and shot him. Tying a seventy-pound weight to his body, Bryant and Milam threw Till’s body into the Tallahatchie River. After three days, authorities discovered Till’s bloated body and later arrested Bryant and Milam.

Till’s mother, Mamie Till Bradley, had her son’s body brought to Chicago for the funeral. After seeing her son’s mutilated face, she insisted on an open-casket funeral. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said. Photographs of Till in his casket, with his face visible, appeared in "Jet," an African American-owned magazine, and soon shocked viewers around the world. In spite of the fact that Moses Wright bravely identified one of the killers in the courtroom, an all-white jury took little more than an hour to acquit Bryant and Milam. Bryant later admitted to the killing in a Look Magazine interview.


As a girl attending the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, an institution founded in the Alabama city in 1886 by two New England missionary women, Rosa Parks learned a principle that would guide her entire life. “What I learned best,” she recalled, “was that I was a person with dignity and self-respect, and I should not set my sights lower than anybody else just because I was black.” Joining the NAACP at the age of 30, Parks became secretary of the Montgomery, Alabama branch. Parks earned a reputation as a quiet but hard worker guided by strong beliefs.

African Americans in Montgomery had planned for some time to challenge segregated seating on the city’s buses. Black riders were made to sit in the back. If the white section filled up, blacks were expected to move farther back and, if necessary, surrender seats to just-boarding white passengers. On December 1, 1955, Parks left her job as a seamstress at the Montgomery Fair department store and entered the bus that took her home each afternoon. Soon the 36 seats on the bus filled, with 22 black passengers in the back and 14 whites in the front. A white man stood at the front of the bus and driver J.P. Blake demanded that four black passengers sitting just behind the back of the white section move to seats farther down. The African American passengers did not budge. After a threat from Blake, three of the riders relented. The fourth, Parks, told Blake that she was not in the black section and would remain in her seat.

Blake replied that he had the authority to determine where the white section ended and the black section began and that he had the authority to arrest Parks if she refused to move. She did. Blake told her she was under arrest. She remained seated until Blake returned with Montgomery police officers, who fingerprinted her and placed her in jail. The police charged her with violating Alabama’s bus segregation laws.

The African American community in Montgomery, who all shared humiliating experiences coping with the city’s Jim Crow ordinances, quickly mobilized as word spread of Parks’ arrest. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) formed to lead a boycott of the city’s bus system with a 26-year-od Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., selected as its president. The MIA at first made mild demands: that black passengers be seated from back to front and whites from front to back on a first-come, first-serve basis. Originally the MIA made no demand for integration, but city officials still refused to budge.

The MIA arranged transportation for the African American domestic servants, sanitation workers, and janitors participating in the bus boycott to travel the often long distances to their jobs. Montgomery police began arresting drivers participating in the MIA carpools. Police arrested Dr. King for allegedly speeding, and four days later someone ignited dynamite at the homes of King and of E.D. Nixon, another boycott leader. Montgomery’s white leadership hoped to break the spirit of the boycotters, but the King arrest and the terrorist attacks had the opposite effect. One maid vowed she would crawl before she got back on the city buses.

Responding to the demands of rank-and-file protestors, the MIA then vowed to continue the boycott until the city desegregated the buses. In spite of the poverty of its supporters, the MIA raised $2,000 a week to carry on its carpools, pay legal expenses, and carry on the boycott. A white grand jury indicted 115 African Americans participating in the movement, including more than 20 African American ministers, which only strengthened the resolve of the boycotters. By February of 1956, the story made headlines around the world and donations to the cause poured in from other countries.

The boycott lasted 381 days and began to adversely affect white businesses in downtown Montgomery. A federal court in June 1956 ruled that Alabama’s and Montgomery’s bus segregation laws violated the Constitution, a decision affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s "Browder v. Gayle" decision. Even though segregated public transportation remained the rule in the South for years to come, the Montgomery Bus Boycott made King a national civil rights leader and set the precedent for sit-ins and other mass protests that would mark the Civil Rights Movement for years to come

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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