Wednesday, October 26, 2005

History turns a corner

Constance Baker Motley, Vivian Malone Jones, and Rosa Parks have passed from the scene within the space of a month.

"As people get older and people pass, it becomes more and more difficult to have that sort of firsthand knowledge" of the fight for integration, said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who met Parks as a 17-year-old student and activist. "It becomes a little more difficult to pass it on."

In my seminar, as we studied the Montgomery bus boycott and Browder v. Gayle, the federal lawsuit that resulted, we came up against a question: could the boycott have succeeded in changing the law without the court's involvement? Or flip it around: would a lawsuit without the public pressure, in the deeply resistant South just shortly after Brown, have achieved any lasting practical result?

In an important new book, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, Michael Klarman argues that Browder v. Gayle was virtually irrelevant:

[T]o focus on Gayle's contribution to desegregating Montgomery buses is to risk fundamentally misunderstanding the significance of the boycott to the modern civil rights movement. The boycott revealed the power of nonviolent protest, deprived southern whites of their illusions that blacks were satisfied with the racial status quo, challenged other southern blacks to match the efforts of those in Montgomery, and enlightened millions of whites around the nation and the world about Jim Crow. A less satisfactory outcome would have been disappointing to Montgomery blacks, but it hardly would have negated, or even greatly tarnished, the momentous accomplishments of the movement.

Jack Bass--biographer of Judge Frank Johnson, who along with Judge Richard Rives voted in favor of the the plaintiffs on a three-judge federal panel--sees it differently: "Only the federal courts and a deeply ingrained and abiding, if sometimes grudging, respect for the law achieved [the result of desegregating the buses]. These forces also provided a channel through which an essentially nonviolent revolution could flow."

Just possibly, both claims have some truth to them.

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