The successful efforts to desegregate Montgomery Alabama’s public transportation is told through a very personal and poignant lens—a daughter’s.
December 1, 1955, is one of the most significant dates in U.S. history. A Black seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama public bus because all the seats were occupied.
Back then, the buses were racially segregated. Ordinarily, whites could take the seats at the front, while Black riders had to sit in the back. When all seats were filled, Black people were expected to give up their seats to whites. But on this day, Rosa Parks said “No.” That incident launched the Civil Rights Movement.
“When the boycott began, I was four years old,” recalled Karen Gray Houston, a retired broadcast journalist, in a recent interview on WVAS-FM at Alabama State University. “I was too young to know what was going on. My parents didn’t sit me down (with my two brothers) and explain it to us.”
Neither did their parents tell them that their father, Thomas Gray, and his younger brother Fred Gray, an attorney, were civil rights activists involved in the bus boycott. Their commitment to civil rights is detailed in Houston’s memoir, “Daughter of the Boycott: Carrying on a Montgomery Family’s Civil Rights Legacy.”
For Houston, an award-winning television and radio journalist, the bus boycott story is personal. After retiring as a reporter in 2014 from a Washington, D.C. television station, Houston began research for her book. She moved temporarily to Montgomery and worked as an opinion columnist at The Montgomery Advertiser newspaper. She also joined One Montgomery, a grassroots advocacy group dedicated to equity and excellence in the city’s public schools. Through these and other associations, she met and interviewed people who were in the boycott or lived through it.
While growing up, Montgomery racism was evident to Houston and her brothers, despite their parents not discussing it with them. “We lived in a segregated neighborhood in Montgomery,” Houston said. “Black people were barred from everything ‘white.’ A Black man who wanted to buy shoes could not try them on. He had to trace an outline of his foot on a paper bag so shoe salespeople could determine his shoe size.”
She continued. “(As a child) I didn’t know that when Black people rode the buses, they had to go through the buses’ front entrance door to place their money in the fare box. Then they had to go to the buses’ back door to board the bus and sit in the rear seats.”
Montgomery’s Black community became increasingly impatient with living under rigid and confining segregation laws. “Before Rosa Parks, there was Hilliard Brooks, who was Black,” said Houston. “In 1950, Brooks, who was drunk and disorderly, was shot and killed by a white police officer, who pulled him off a public bus he was boarding. That was the story. What really happened was the police officer pulled Brooks off the bus, threw him to the ground and shot him as he was trying to get up.”
Houston’s father Thomas Gray was friends with Brooks. They were both World War II veterans. When he learned that the white police officer was “let off the hook,” said Houston, “my father organized a demonstration with other veterans to protest police brutality.”
During the bus boycott, which lasted 382 days, Gray assisted in driving Black Montgomery residents in his “prized green Plymouth,” smiled Houston.
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Segregated public buses were a particular sore point, Houston noted. Many Black people did not own cars. They depended on buses to go to their jobs, especially Black women working as maids for white families.
Far from being a quiet woman who didn’t give up her bus seat because she was tired, Rosa Parks was an activist who worked for the NAACP. While there she agreed to a test case to challenge bus segregation, Houston said.
Parks almost didn’t become the boycott representative, said Houston. On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old Black girl, was dragged off a crowded bus and arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white woman. The bus boycott organizers were going to use Colvin for their test case, but two months later she was pregnant. “(The boycott leadership) didn’t think an ‘unwed mother’ should be the image of the movement,” said Houston.
But Colvin and four other Black women represented by Houston’s uncle Fred Gray were part of the first federal court case against segregated buses. Fred Gray argued the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. In December 1956, the high court ordered Alabama to end bus segregation.
Houston’s father moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio to earn his law degree. His brother Fred also earned his law degree in a Northern state. “Alabama law schools wouldn’t accept Black students,” explained Houston.
Thomas Gray became known in Cleveland for his outstanding litigation of poverty, fair housing, and civil rights cases. Eventually, Houston’s parents moved back to Montgomery where he became a federal administrative law judge. “He was writing his own bus boycott book, but he died without finishing it,” said Houston. Fred Gray, 90, still goes to his law office and consults on civil rights cases.
Houston has rarely ridden a Montgomery bus. After the boycott ended, Houston’s mother took her and her brothers on a bus ride. They sat in front behind the bus driver. “I think she wanted us to see how it felt to be Black and not have to sit in the back,” said Houston. In 2015, Houston sat “right down front. I felt pride. I thought of how my father and my uncle made this possible.”
With today’s protests against white racist police brutality “We are at a moment of reckoning, the cusp of a new civil rights movement,” Houston said. “Ask yourself where you will lead change, and how you can make a difference.”
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