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Fightin' with Her Feet

Lilie Mae Bradford was arrested three and a half years before Rosa Parks
Lilie Mae Bradford had kowtowed to white people her entire life. She stepped off the sidewalk when she crossed their paths, even if they were younger. She called them "Sir" and "Ma'am," even if they called her "girl." She drank from the "colored" water fountains, sat in the "colored" waiting rooms, and used the "colored" toilets -- even though they were always inferior.

And then one day, something clicked. It was May 11, 1951. After a long, hard day at work, Lilie Mae stepped up to a Montgomery city bus, purchased a ticket from the driver and asked for a transfer. Then she stepped down and rushed to the "Negro Section" at the back of the bus before the driver had time to shut the door and speed away without her, as he was known to do. Some days Lilie Mae made it; some days she didn't. This time, she did. She gratefully sank into a chair and glanced at her transfer. The driver had made an error on it. Now, blacks weren't supposed to go around correcting white people's mistakes back then. This was Alabama, after all. Jim Crow wasn't just a set of laws here -- it was a way of life.

Jennifer marks the spot where Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955
But Lilie Mae Bradford was sick and tired of being sick and tired. She decided to stand up for her rights. She marched up the aisle through the "White Section" of the bus to the driver's seat and asked for another transfer. He took one look at her and yelled: "Nigger, go to the back of the bus where you belong!"


Embassy Suites coup d'etat / Picture it: It's 7:30 p.m. and Jen and I have no place to stay.

Lilie Mae didn't bat an eyelash. "If you give me my money back, I'll go back," she said, then took a seat in the front of the bus alongside the whites.

Silence swept through the bus. The driver was so stunned it took him a moment to recover. When Lilie Mae refused to move a second time, he called the police and had her thrown in jail.

The Holt Street Baptist Church became site of the MIA meetings
"I knew sooner or later I'd be arrested," Lilie Mae, now 70, told Jennifer and me as we sat around her kitchen table, spell-bound. "I just couldn't adjust to the system. I wanted to be free."

Lilie Mae didn't realize it at the time, but she had just taken her first step down the road to freedom. Three and a half years later, she would be joined by thousands of her people. Together, they would kick-start the Civil Rights Movement that ultimately ended 400 years of segregation.

During the boycott, many blacks volunteered their services as taxi drivers
The ball officially got rolling when a 43-year-old NAACP activist named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955. Although Lilie Mae and other African Americans had been imprisoned for the same "crime" before her, the NAACP put the spotlight on Rosa. A representative of the Women's Political Council named Jo Ann Robinson printed up more than 50,000 flyers asking blacks to boycott Montgomery's city buses on the day Rosa Parks showed up to court. She then plastered them to the walls of the black community -- from beauty parlors to beer halls. Teachers told their students about the boycott; pastors, their parishioners; workers, one another. "The time is now. If not now, when? If not us, who? If not here, where?" was their rallying cry.

That Monday, Rosa Parks was found guilty of violating the 1945 Alabama bus segregation statute and fined $10. But one only had to look past the courthouse doors to see who really won the case. Nearly 500 blacks were holding a vigil on the courthouse lawn, and in the streets beyond -- the city buses were virtually empty.

Martin Luther King received numerous death threats during the boycott and his porch was bombed
The Montgomery Bus Boycott had officially begun.

That evening, more than 5,000 men, women and children crammed into the Holt Street Baptist Church to discuss what had happened. They formed an organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and elected a 26-year-old, up-and-coming Reverend from Atlanta named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as their leader. He wrote up a list of their demands, including more bus stops in black neighborhoods, the hiring of black bus drivers, and dignified treatment. Everyone agreed not to ride again until their measures had been met.

They thought it would take a week or two. It continued for 13 months.

The MIA helped people get to and from work by organizing pick-up and drop-off stations for carpools and taxis, but the majority of blacks simply walked.

Even today, Montgomery's buses help spread the word
"It took about an hour and a half for me to walk to work, each way," Lilie Mae remembered. "If it was raining, I'd have to take a city taxi, which cost me half of what I earned. But it was worth the sacrifice."

White Montgomery didn't know what hit it. Not only were buses losing an average of $3,000 a day (as blacks constituted three-quarters of their patronage), but downtown businesses were hurting as well. Even upper-class whites were affected by the boycott, as they suddenly had to chauffeur their housekeepers around.

The city retaliated by throwing dozens of leaders of the boycott (and sympathetic taxi drivers) in jail. Some white segregationists also resorted to violence. Bombs exploded in four black churches and several homes -- including that of Dr. King. But while he worried terribly about his wife and newborn daughter, Dr. King urged his fellow African Americans to continue the protest.

"We have known humiliation, we have known abusive language, we have been plunged into the abyss of oppression. And we decided to raise up only with the weapon of protest. We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us," he said.

Kathy Jackson remembers the bus boycotts
With Dr. King's wise words echoing in their hearts, blacks persisted in their boycott. As one protester said, their feet may have ached, but their souls were rested. And in November 1956, the Supreme Court outlawed segregation on local bus lines. After 381 days of protest, blacks were finally able to board buses as citizens instead of inferiors.

Even more significantly, the Montgomery Bus Boycott showed the world that African Americans had had enough. Something had "clicked" in their collective mindset. They weren't going to endure the chains of slavery and the humiliation of Jim Crow any longer. Their days of kowtowing were over.

The Civil Rights Movement had officially begun.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Organizing the revolution and the future
Jennifer - No, it's not a warzone. It's Selma, Alabama Neda - The dream that inspired a nation
Stephanie - Riders on the wave of justice and equality
Jennifer - Crushing the lie of "separate but equal"