There are trailblazers and torchbearers. The trailblazer is the pioneer; the torchbearer follows and amplifies the path of the trailblazer. (There is no judgment implied in these designations, and one can be a trailblazer at one moment, while a torchbearer at another.) The students who sat at lunch counters in Greensboro and Nashville were trailblazers; one could make the argument that the Freedom Riders were torchbearers. Moms Demand Action/Everytown for Gun Safety are trailblazers; the students of Parkland and the March for Our Lives are carrying the torch. The Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, AL and Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Rosa Parks were trailblazers; Dr. King and the residents of Montgomery, who organized and conducted the Montgomery bus boycott, were the torchbearers. Today’s post is about the Women’s Political Council, without whom there would never have been a Montgomery bus boycott.
In 1946, Mary Fair Burks was arrested for cussing out a white woman after a minor traffic altercation. Despite the fact that it was the white woman, not Ms. Burks, who had used profanity, this was Montgomery, Alabama, and she was taken to jail. She had learned about her rights while a graduate student at the University of Michigan and insisted upon her right to make a phone call. She called her husband, who showed up at the jail with a white lawyer; when the lawyer read the charge, he tore it up and demanded her release. Although Mary Fair Burks had long engaged in small, personal acts of resistance (which she called her “private guerilla warfare”), the arrest led her to decide to do something more about segregation through organizing beyond her own personal war, although she readily admitted that she had no plan of action.
The Sunday after her arrest, the pastor at her affluent church gave a sermon attacking the complacency of the congregation; their willingness to play it safe because they had achieved a certain level of economic security. Burks realized that she was probably not the only woman who had experienced humiliation and racial abuse and spent the next week contacting 50 women – church friends, bridge group friends, colleagues – to see if they wanted to form an organization to deal with some of Montgomery’s racial problems. Forty women attended the first meeting, and the Women’s Political Council (WPC) was formed with Mary Burks as the first president (a position she held until 1950 when she voluntarily stepped aside, and Jo Ann Robinson assumed the post). The group sought to gain political leverage, and had a three-tiered approach:
…first, political action, including voter registration and interviewing candidate for office; second, protest about abuses on city buses and use of taxpayers’ money to operate segregated parks (we assumed that segregated schools and housing would be with us forever, and they still are); and third, education, which involved teaching young high school students about democracy and how it was intended to operate as well as teaching adults to read and write well enough to fulfill the literacy requirements for voting.
(Source: Trailblazers: Women in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an essay by Mary Fair Burks, 1988)
Their first course of action was to get everyone in the group registered to vote. The literacy tests had blocked many of the women from getting registered in the past; even several of the women who had Ph.Ds had failed the test, which was not about literacy at all, but filled with ever-changing minor details designed to block registration. It took multiple attempts, but all of the WPC finally got registered.
Additionally, the WPC contacted the League of Women Voters and asked them to help with getting white candidates to speak to the group about issues and policies. Black women were barred from joining the League, so they instead asked League members to join the WPC to ensure they were kept current on candidates and their political positions. After Dr. King became pastor at Mary Burks’ church in 1954, the WPC and the church’s Political Action Committee combined forces, and after church, Burks would read out the names of the least-objectionable candidates; bloc voting was utilized to strengthen their political influence.
By the 1950s, the WPC had more than 300 members (all registered voters) and was one of the most influential civil rights organizations in Montgomery. In 1954 and 1955, the group met multiple times with the City Commission to register their complaints about abuses of black riders of the city buses. At that point, Plessy v Ferguson was still the law of the land (Plessy, in fact, has never been explicitly overturned by the Supreme Court), so the WPC focused on trying to curb abuses. It wasn’t until after the arrest of Claudette Colvin, a 15-year old student who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery bus (nine months prior to Rosa Parks), that the idea of a bus boycott started to be seriously discussed by the WPC; it was abandoned when it was learned Colvin was pregnant, and it was feared that too much focus would be on her as an unwed mother, rather than as a young woman fighting for her rights. Mary Louise Smith, an 18-year old, was arrested for failing to give up her seat in October, 1955, but her case was largely kept quiet by her family and friends. It wasn’t until 40 days later on Thursday, December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, known and respected by the black “establishment” was arrested that the WPC made their decision. They held a vote on Friday, December 2 and came out in favor of a boycott and determined the wording of the leaflet they would distribute; by Saturday morning, Jo Ann Robinson had typed and mimeographed the leaflet, and it was ready for distribution. On Monday, December 5th, the day of the one-day boycott, the Montgomery buses were almost empty of black riders.
It was also on December 5, 1955 that the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), with Dr. King as its president, was formed. It was this group that came up with a list of demands and the strategy that the boycott would continue until the demands were met. If not for the trail blazed by the WPC, however, the MIA and the black community of Montgomery would not have become the torchbearers of the 381 days of the Montgomery bus boycott.
The Women’s Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery, Alabama was founded in 1946 by scholar and Alabama State College professor Mary Fair Burks.
— Ben Baker (@wewantben_) February 5, 2018
With pre-@Twitter technology, Ms. Jo Ann Robinson & the Women’s Political Council started a revolution. With a state-owned mimeograph machine they created 52,000 leaflets to destroy state-enforced segregation. They called for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.#WomensHistoryMonth @AP pic.twitter.com/qK8mUK8nqu
— Cornell Wm. Brooks (@CornellWBrooks) March 2, 2018
The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days and, initially, did not include changing the segregation laws. Instead, the Montgomery Improvement Association demanded courtesy, the hiring of Black drivers, and a first-come first-seated policy pic.twitter.com/WPPwDVlUXn
— ColorOfChange.org (@ColorOfChange) December 5, 2017