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How Black Alabamans Won Freedom

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(NewsNation) – The story of racial equality cannot be told without mentioning Rosa Parks and the bus boycotts in Alabama. A new book by Dan Abrams explores this pivotal moment through the lens of the era’s last civil rights pioneer – attorney Fred Gray.

Gray represented Parks at his trial and represented Martin Luther King, Jr. at his trial following the ensuing bus boycotts.

In “Alabama v. King,” Abrams and Gray recount how civil rights fighters used the justice system to dismantle segregation.

Below is an excerpt from “Alabama v. King,” available May 24.


At around 9:15 p.m. on January 30, 1956, twenty-seven-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. was advocating a nonviolent protest in front of about two thousand people in the cavernous First Baptist Church. Dr King told the captivated audience: “If all I have to pay is to go to jail multiple times and get like 20 threatening calls a day… I think that’s a very small price to pay for what we are fighting for. Little did he know that literally as he spoke that price was getting considerably higher.

A white supremacist had come to his house that night, walked up half the steps of his white clapboard house in a quiet neighborhood, and thrown a live stick of dynamite on the porch. His wife, Coretta Scott King, and a friend were in the living room, and their newborn daughter, Yolanda, was sleeping in a back room. When the dynamite exploded moments later, windows were blown out and parts of the house were destroyed or in ruins.

Upon learning of the incident, King immediately rushed home and was relieved to find his wife, friend and daughter unharmed. A furious and frightened crowd of about three hundred quickly gathered in support of the King family, and with the residual smell of explosives still lingering in the night air, Dr. King stepped out onto his porch. partially standing and said, “We believe in the law. and order. Do not take your weapons… We do not advocate violence. We want to love our enemies. With those words, a potentially explosive situation had been defused.

Local authorities never arrested the perpetrator, but less than two months later they arrested Dr King for organizing the peaceful protests he was championing the night his house was bombed. The trial that followed will introduce the young minister to America.

It had taken a series of extraordinary, unexpected and fortuitous 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,” recalls Fred Gray, his friend and first civil rights attorney, who coincidentally had been called to the Alabama bar that same week, “he didn’t didn’t have civil rights in mind. In fact, the preacher before him had been kicked out of town because he was too liberal.

Fred Gray and Martin Luther King Jr. in Gray’s small office in 1956. They met there almost daily to plan Gray’s defense of Dr. King in the trial that would see the two men pioneering the movement that morally and legally, changed America forever.

But after civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested on Dec. 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 black Montgomery citizens and ministers had urged a one-day bus boycott to protest the way black Montgomerians were treated on public transportation. The protest was scheduled for December 5, the day of Parks’ trial. “It was a long time coming,” recalls Fred Gray. “It was not just an isolated incident. We had long complained about the way black people were treated on the buses. But the bus company had done nothing at all. Initially, we would have contented ourselves with minor changes; but they just ignored us. They treated us like we had no rights. So when Ms. Parks was arrested, the community simply said, “This is it. We’re going to do something about it now. They’re going to respect us or we’re not going to keep taking their buses.'”

During her thirty-minute trial on December 5, Rosa Parks pleaded not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and violation of a local law. Fred Gray defended her. She was found guilty and fined $10, plus $4 in court costs. Gray immediately appealed the conviction. But by then the protest had begun.

Now, the concept of a citywide boycott has been seriously discussed for the first time. In 1953, a two-week boycott of city buses in Baton Rouge, Louisiana led to a compromise that made middle seats on buses first come, first served. “Unfortunately,” Gray recalled, “there were black leaders in Montgomery, including black ministers, who felt that before we filed a lawsuit to desegregate the buses, we should try to get the city to accept something less than that. Personally, I had no problem with that because I was sure the city was not going to be willing to make any deal. The city’s attitude seemed to be, if you give them a seat, they will take the whole bus.

Montgomery’s black community comprised only a small portion of the electorate – less than 8% of the city’s 40,000 black residents were registered to vote – and yet, in recent elections, those black votes proved key. of victory. Politicians needed those votes, so at least they had to act like they were listening. In 1954, Professor Jo Ann Robinson, president of Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council, a militant organization for black women, sent a letter to Mayor William Gayle, noting that “three quarters of the passengers on this public transport are black. If the niggers didn’t frequent them, they couldn’t function. She asked for various changes to the existing regulations. These included the right for blacks to be seated back to front on a first-come, first-seat basis and that “blacks should not be invited or forced to pay the fare up front and go at the back of the bus to enter”.

City officials agreed to other demands such as stopping buses on every block in the black section of town, as they did in white sections, rather than every other block. of houses. Officials also agreed to investigate allegations that some drivers were abusive. But the seats remained the insoluble problem. Generally, the front seats were reserved for whites, blacks sat in the back, but the sixteen middle seats had no permanent designation. Drivers were empowered to determine who would sit where, with the understanding that white people would always have 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.