The man behind the boycott

WAY BACK WHEN

Rosa Parks ignited the civil rights movement, but E.D. Nixon's role is mostly forgotten

Back Story

December 10, 2005|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Rosa Parks' refusal to yield her seat to a white passenger and move to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., transit bus 50 years ago this week proved to be a seminal event in the history of the nation's civil rights movement.

Arrested for violating Alabama's bus segregation laws, Parks spent several hours in jail before being released, and at her trial four days later on Dec. 5, she was found guilty and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs.

Her courageous action sparked a 381-day boycott by blacks of Montgomery City Lines' buses, which nearly bankrupted the company and resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1956 that declared the city's bus segregation illegal.

While the events surrounding Parks' struggle brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to prominence as head of the bus boycott, the role of Edgar Daniel Nixon, one of its chief organizers and influential strategists, has faded.

Nixon was a Pullman Co. porter and a lifelong activist. He was a founder in 1925 with A. Philip Randolph of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

In 1944, he became president of the Voters League of Montgomery and organized a march of more than 700 blacks to the Montgomery County, Ala., Courthouse, demanding that they be allowed to qualify to vote.

A decade later, Nixon became the first black in that Alabama county since Reconstruction to run for political office. In a narrow race, he lost the election for a seat on the county executive committee of the Democratic Party.

Nixon was a past president and founder of the Montgomery and Alabama branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a friend of Parks'.

"This tall, raw-boned son of an Alabama sharecropper, with fists as thick as boxing gloves and skin the color of midnight, was the black activist whom whites in Montgomery knew best and blacks trusted most," wrote Larry Tye, author and former Boston Globe reporter, in his book, Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.

The day after Parks' arrest, Nixon was busy working with black leaders planning the boycott.

Ray Jenkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and a retired editorial page editor of The Evening Sun, was the Alabama reporter at the time of the bus boycott for the Columbus, Ga., Ledger. He came to know Nixon after joining the staff of the Montgomery Advertiser-Journal in 1959.

"He was a very imposing presence with a booming bass voice. I've often thought had his ancestors not been forcibly removed from Africa, he would have been a tribal chieftain," Jenkins recalled in a recent telephone conversation.

Nixon was painfully aware of his lack of education and was most impressed by the young Martin Luther King, who was 26 and had just moved to Montgomery to become pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Also, Nixon, to whom the leadership of the boycott would have fallen, was still working as a porter and often traveled between Montgomery and Chicago.

When Nixon called King and asked for his help, King said, "Brother Nixon, let me think about it a while and call me back."

"The story I got was that Nixon went to see King and explained that in a few days, `We're going have a bus boycott and we need someone to lead this movement, and you're the one.' He also told him, `You're not going to let your people down in their time of need,'" Jenkins said.

"Still, everyone at Dexter Avenue knew it was Nixon who had given birth to the notion of a boycott, which he saw as the quickest way to move the nascent civil rights struggle from the courthouse to the streets," wrote Tye.

Tye added: "That fortuitous assignment, based more on the size of his church rather than his capabilities, would recast King's life and launch him into the American orbit."

As memories of King's role in the boycott grew over the years and Nixon's faded, Nixon became somewhat resentful.

In his 1977 book, My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South, Nixon told author Howell Raines, "So many people got famous out of it, and I was still left here. And I'm still here servin' the people and the rest of 'em is gone."

Nixon later recounted to Raines a conversation he had with a woman while traveling on an airplane. After he introduced himself, she said, "Oh, you're down in Montgomery, Alabama. Lord, I don't know what'ud happened to the black people if Reverend King hadn't went to town."

Nixon replied: "If Mrs. Parks had got up and given that white man her seat, you'd never aheard of Reverend King."

Tye reported that King called Nixon "one of the chief voices of the Negro community in the area of civil rights."

Jenkins recalled meeting Nixon one day on Dexter Avenue and shaking his hand. People of different races didn't openly shake hands - and certainly not on the Montgomery streets of that era.

"It sort of choked him up. He told me, `You have no idea what it means to me to have an editor from the Advertiser shake my hand.' It really violated a sacred social custom, and [it is] something I didn't forget."

In a 1982 column for The Evening Sun, Jenkins wrote, "If ever I'm asked to write a list of the most impressive men I've ever met, E.D. Nixon's name will be very close to the top."

Nixon died in 1987.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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