Learn from Montgomery Bus Boycott in Designing Resistance Pledges

In what has become an annual ritual, people in the peace movement are trying to remind folks that “I have a dream” isn’t the only speech Martin Luther King, Jr. made. Here’s my contribution:

I think it’s worthwhile to compare the Resolution that launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott to that vague anti-war “Appeal” I wrote about on . It shows the difference between a call-to-action and a call-to-inaction, between a campaign for change and a same-old-complaint, between making something happen and having an opinion.

King introduced the resolution, in part, by saying:

We are here because we are to get the situation corrected.… My friends, I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city.… Not only are we using the tools of persuasion but we’ve come to see that we’ve got to use the tools of coercion.

The resolution formally spelled out the segregation policy of the city of Montgomery and specifically the Montgomery City Lines, Incorporated bus company, and then made very specific demands — not of them, but of every citizen in Montgomery, first and foremost those citizens who were assembled to listen to and vote on the resolution (here somewhat edited for clarity from the version in the transcript of the meeting recording):

  1. That every citizen in Montgomery, regardless of race, color or creed, refrain from riding buses owned and operated in the city of Montgomery by Montgomery Lines, Incorporated, until some arrangement has been worked out between said citizens and the Montgomery City Lines, Incorporated.
  2. That every person owning or who has access to an automobile will use their automobiles in assisting other persons to get to work without charge.
  3. That the employers of persons whose employees live a great distance from them, as much as possible, afford transportation for your own employees.
  4. That the Negro citizens of Montgomery are ready and willing to send a delegation of citizens to the Montgomery City Lines, Incorporated, to discuss their grievances and to work out a solution for the same.

Be it further resolved, that we have not, we are not, and we have no intentions of using any unlawful means or any intimidation to persuade persons not to ride the Montgomery City Lines buses. However, we call upon your conscience, both moral and spiritual, to give your whole-hearted support to this worthy undertaking. We believe we have a just complaint and we are willing to discuss this matter with the proper authorities.

This resolution was put to a vote at “the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association” and the vote was overwhelmingly in favor. King then addressed the assembly:

You have voted. And you have done it with a great deal of enthusiasm, and I want to express my appreciation to you, on behalf of everybody here. Now let us go out to stick together and stay with this thing until the end. Now it means sacrificing, yes, it means sacrificing at points. But there are some things that we’ve got to learn to sacrifice for. And we’ve got to come to the point that we are determined not to accept a lot of things that we have been accepting in the past.

So I’m urging you now. We have the facilities for you to get to your jobs. And we are putting, we have the cabs there at your service, automobiles will be at your service. And don’t be afraid to use up any of the gas. If you have it, if you are fortunate enough to have a little money, use it for a good cause. Now my automobile is gonna be in it, it has been in it. And I’m not concerned about how much gas I’m gonna use. I want to see this thing work.

And we will not be content until oppression is wiped out of Montgomery, and really out of America. We won’t be content until that is done. We are merely insisting on the dignity and worth of every human personality. And I don’t stand here, I’m not arguing for any selfish person. I’ve never been on a bus in Montgomery. But I would be less than a Christian if I stood back and said, because I don’t ride the bus, I don’t have to ride a bus, that it doesn’t concern me.

The city told the taxi drivers it was illegal to give discounted fares to the boycotters. The cops started giving out nuisance traffic tickets to cars that volunteers used to shuttle people outside of the bus system. The city pressured insurance companies to rescind car insurance for cars involved in these volunteer shuttles. Boycotters were physically attacked and brought up on conspiracy charges. King’s house was firebombed. Through it all, the boycott continued and was eventually victorious.

It took all that to get bus drivers to stop telling black people to stand up and move to the back so a white person could rest his bum, something any sensible person would know without being reminded was beneath the dignity of everyone concerned. How much more effort do you think it will take to stop the war in Iraq or the mass incarceration in America? How long do you think it would take the followers of a toothless Appeal like the one I discussed on , or the same old timid tactics of today’s peace movement to do the trick?

Incidentally, both Georgia and Alabama used their tax laws to harass King. As with Jesus, who was also brought up on poorly-supported tax evasion charges, this isn’t necessarily evidence that King was resisting taxes, just that the tax cop is the meanest dog in the junkyard and the best one to sic on your political enemies.

While Nicholas Confessore tries to break the code and discover what’s going on behind the scenes at Dubya’s tax reform plot, Lew Rockwell takes a look at The Tax-Reform Racket and concludes that Dubya’s plot to mess with the tax code really boils down to an opportunity for the Republican Party to shake down the various concerns who want to see their favorite loopholes preserved from the coming “simplification.” That’s the most sensible prediction yet about the results of the coming fiasco. Rockwell’s column ends with this insight:

Let me close with a proposal that we abolish the income tax. It took in $873 billion last year. If we cut the budget by that amount, we would end with a completely gutted federal budget, right? Actually, that is not true. We would end up with a federal budget of about $1.5 trillion, where it was in . If anyone thinks that the federal government was too small back then, I can only recommend a complete education in economics, politics, and the truth about human freedom.