In the course of research for our labor exhibit, “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” I came across several files on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was excited about this “find” because of the high profile and historical nature of the boycott, and I wanted to see why it was in the AFL-CIO Archive, which documents the labor movement activities of the AFL-CIO. A letter from Matthew Woll, AFL-CIO’s General Counsel, to George Meany (AFL-CIO President) explains the reasoning behind the AFL-CIO’s non-action on the boycott, which had direct ties to the transportation trades, specifically the leaders and members of the AFL-CIO affiliated Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Alabama.
On December 1, 1955, the Civil Rights Movement came into national focus when Rosa Parks held her ground and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In Alabama segregation laws were in place, designating bus seats in the front for whites, and seats at the back of the bus for African Americans. On that day, the bus was full and she was expected to give up her seat. When she remained in her seat, Parks was arrested and later bailed out by E.D. Nixon, president of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, and civil rights lawyer Clifford Durr.
Leaders of the Women’s Political Council and the NAACP organized a one-day boycott of the city buses starting on December 5, 1955. The boycott was intended to put negative economic pressure on the city bus system which was heavily dependent on African American riders. The boycott was successful, and continued for a total of 381 days with the bus system in Montgomery losing about $3,000 of revenue per day.
The boycott also gained the support of Martin Luther King, Jr. who was elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), formed to support the boycott and the legal challenges it presented. The MIA requested that seating be first-come, first-served on the buses, and that African American drivers be hired for routes in the African American neighborhoods. The requests were refused, and many white citizens used intimidation and retaliatory actions such as issuing threats and firing people from their jobs.
In the midst of the chaos, in early 1956, over 100 African Americans participating in the boycott were arrested under the State of Alabama’s 1921 Anti-Conspiracy Act, which was described as an anti-labor statute used to penalize groups that boycott businesses, on the ground that it constituted conspiracy of and interference with business enterprises. One of the people arrested was E. D. Nixon, who was also president of the Montgomery, Alabama local of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
In February of 1956, George Meany sent a wire to President Eisenhower, in reference to attempts to desegregate the University of Alabama, with approval of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. Meany pushed Eisenhower to give attention to the bus boycott stating:
“The AFL-CIO is glad to learn that you have ordered the Dept. of Justice to investigate the ‘defiance’ of law at the University of Alabama. We urge you to direct that the investigation be broadened to include the violence at Montgomery. It is a disgrace to the good name of our country and our democracy when local authorities permit lawless interference with civil rights.”
In early March, A. Philip Randolph, President of the national Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, wrote to George Meany, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) to ask the AFL-CIO to support the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Meany referred the matter to J. Matthew Woll, General Counsel of the AFL-CIO for his recommendation. Woll did not think that the AFL-CIO intervening in a trial court case would be effective in gaining the ground that is needed for a “win” for labor and the civil rights movements. He recommends that it would be more effective to be involved in a broader reaching case with a very controlled scope that cannot be weakened by subjective interpretations.
In Woll’s response, he states:
“[…] I do not believe that, on the ground urged for intervention, the instant prosecution would furnish as favorable an opportunity for successful attack as would be furnished by a test case brought or induced by labor and developed with the twin objectives of leaving no room for avoidance of a clear-cut, final determination of all possible constitutional questions and of presenting a definite, undisputed factual situation most favorable to the presentation of labor’s point of view. If the statute is to be attacked as an anti-labor law and as destructive of labor’s rights, I would prefer it to be attacked on that basis, under a factual situation, and with legal arguments confined solely to that issue and under circumstances insuring not only employment of all available and proper means of attack, but eliminating all possible avenues of avoiding a constitutional determination.”
Since the AFL-CIO’s national leaders decided not to become involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in March of 1956, the AFL-CIO state organizations released a joint statement which stated (in part):
“We abhor social and racial injustice in any form. And make no mistake about it, the factors leading to the indictment of the Negro leaders in Alabama were the rankest kind of injustice. […] Thus [the anti-conspiracy act of 1921] passed to restrain the one group of people seeking to redress their wrongs is used many years later against another group also attempting to secure fair and equal treatment. […] Labor has much in common with the Negroes of Montgomery. We offer them our full support in their struggle for justice.”
When I found the above letters between George Meany, Matthew Woll, and A. Philip Randolph, I was surprised that the AFL-CIO did not take the case, and thought it was an unexpected strategy to miss such an opportunity to make a difference. It seems like most of the unions were supportive of the civil rights movement’s efforts to eliminate segregation in the south, but the AFL-CIO was still very careful about what causes they supported in an official way. I do think this was the beginning of labor’s involvement with the civil rights movement, because in later years the AFL-CIO was very active in supporting the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
For more newspaper articles related to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, check out the fully digitized AFL-CIO News (1956) and keyword search “Montgomery.”
At the University of Maryland Libraries, our AFL-CIO Collections include records of the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Department including some archival material about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
For more information about labor and the civil rights movement, visit our new exhibit “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jen Eidson is a Processing Archivist at the University of Maryland Libraries.