One 45 Minute Class Period
The learners will:
- describe Southern black resistance against legal segregation in public transportation during the World War II era.
- determine the causes and effects of actual scenarios of resistance in the South during the mid 1940s and present possible alternatives to resolve those conflicts.
- explain why Rosa Parks is called the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Display a picture of Rosa Parks on the overhead projector as the students enter the classroom. Using whole group discussion style, ask the students to identify the person in the picture; tell what she did and explain what impact her action had on American history.
The Venn diagram and journal reflections will assess student learning in this lesson.
Lesson Developed By:Jane Ladley
The 20th century Southern United States was a world where public space was equally shared and dominated by people of diverse class and economic background—people with many differences but yet one specific attribute, they were white. This time period brought about many personal battles of African Americans who fought against the segregation of all peoples. Many of these battles have gone unnoticed and undocumented throughout the past decades. Historians in general have often overlooked the well-organized movements, as well as their goals and spokespersons, which led to the success of organized collective movements.
During the mid 1940s, when the nation was involved in a world fight against Hitler’s idea of Aryan Supremacy as a threat to Western democracy, white supremacy and segregation remained extremely evident in the Deep South. Birmingham, Alabama was the place where many African American voices began to be heard, especially those of the youth who believed that United States soil should no longer justify racism. Public spaces (commons), such as city streets, streetcars and buses became the most common place for exhibiting militancy and taking a stand.
During WWII the wartime economy created many job opportunities, which led to a great migration to the cities. This movement placed additional stress on already limited transportation, such as buses and streetcars. The fight for space and position of public areas, such as sidewalks, stations, depots, stores, elevators, buses and streetcars, became a breeding ground for intense racial conflict and discrimination. The Jim Crow laws led to the justification of unfair and unequal treatment of the black community. Many incidences of protest and violence took place on public transportation throughout this period of time. Segregation on city buses was identified by the use of color boards. These boards were not stationary and could be moved according to the number of passengers at the driver’s discretion, which created another issue.
Bus drivers and streetcar conductors carried guns and blackjacks and used them regularly to maintain order. Many of these “self-defined” police also carried an attitude of racism. Several accounts include those of drivers and conductors that physically attacked black passengers for questioning the passing of a stop, swearing or not moving quickly enough to the back of the bus. In 1944 many reported incidences stemmed from black passengers who were continually passed up or were unable to board the buses to allow for “potential” white passengers. This caused passengers to arrive late to their destination and/or expired transfers. In this case they would have to repurchase an entire ticket. Oftentimes passengers were made to purchase at the front door, but then were directed to board at the back. It was not uncommon for these passengers to be left in the dust as the driver pulled away without allowing them adequate time to board. Additional confrontations occurred when drivers intentionally returned the wrong change or gave all coin when changing a large bill.
In addition, several incidents occurred where white male passengers, mainly working class, took it upon themselves to banter and attack African Americans. They threw them off the trains, slapped them or drew guns on them. One of the most noted examples was that of Steven Edwards who was sent to the back of the bus to make room for the whites. Rather than following the request, Steven opted to leave the bus and demanded the return of his fare. This resulted in being shot twice by the bus driver and then again twice by a male passenger. Neither of the shooters was blamed for the incident, but Edwards was fined $50.00 after being declared guilty of disorderly conduct.
Incidents of Opposition
The attitude on public grounds was far different from that of workers entering the workplace. Blacks entered the workplace as disempowered producers, but in public spaces they too were consumers. This attitude created situations in which blacks refused to pay the fare or attempted to pay only a portion of the fare as a protest to their second-class citizenship. This was a time where clothes status was a big issue. Black service men were often empowered by their uniforms. Assertive actions included blacks that deliberately sat next to white females, occasionally pulled knives on drivers when asked to go to the back or moved color boards forward. Though some of the actions of the black male were physically confrontational, most of the opposition displayed by black women tended to be profane and militant. Arrests were generally made for cursing.
Not all battles were for the masses. Some were more personal, generated by the need for personal autonomy, masculinity, dignity and freedom. Young black males were not only involved in verbal and physical confrontations, but attacked the physical property; such as disengaging trolley cars. Subway graffiti was a common site. School children often set off bells, which may have been considered a childhood prank, but in the realm of what was taking place became a much bigger issue.
A Few Exceptions
Not all drivers expressed racial prejudice. Empathy was evident and acts of kindness were displayed in a few reported incidences that told of how drivers took a stand against the unnecessary measures used by many. One example is that of a driver who asked two white women to move to a side seat to make room for blacks. Another incident tells of a police officer who boarded a bus and demanded the color boards be moved back because two black passengers were sitting across from whites. The driver felt it was unnecessary to move the boards, which would cause some blacks to stand, especially when the white passengers were nearly ready to unload anyway. The driver refused to follow the police officer’s request and the officer then filed a complaint against him.
Transportation problems were accompanied by employment problems. This included less pay, lack of training opportunities, which were offered only to the white worker, as well as less desirable positions of industry. This caused many blacks to migrate to the north where better opportunities were available or join the armed services. Most jobs for women were given to white women only and the black women who longed to leave the drudgery of housework and/or needed to help share responsibility in the family’s finances, had to take a position as a service worker in someone else’s home. The fear of blacks taking jobs from whites was another element, which fostered unrest between the two groups.
Scenario #1: A bus driver closed the door on a black soldier’s hand as he was tossing a cigarette butt while boarding. The soldier perceived it as a vicious and deliberate act of racism. Words were then exchanged between the two, which quickly escalated into a fistfight: “Soldier drew back to hit operator, who struck soldier on head with gun. He reached in his pocket and operator told him to take his hand out or he would kill him. He withdrew his hand and left bus.”
Scenario #2: In October of 1943, a teenager named Pauline Carth attempted to board the College Hills line around 8:00 PM. When she was informed that there was no more room for “colored” passengers, she forced her way into the bus anyway, threw her money at the driver and cursed and spit on him. The driver responded by knocking her out of the bus, throwing her to the ground and holding her down until police arrived.
Scenario #3: On a North Birmingham bus, a fight ensued when a black woman allegedly pushed a white woman out of the way while she was boarding through the front door during a rain storm. Soaking wet, these two women “went down the aisle…fighting with their umbrellas.” But the battle did not end there. A white man standing in the aisle who had witnessed the fight walked up to the black woman (who by then had found a seat) and hit her with his own umbrella. She, in turn, “grabbed [his] umbrella and [the] handle came off, and she struck back at [the] man with the part she had. Operator separated them and there was no further trouble.” Surprisingly, no one was arrested.
Scenario #4: In April of 1944, a white woman boarded the Mountain Terrace bus and started a tirade against blacks, which was her usual custom. At 29th Street she said she was going to see that the color boards were not moved this morning (giving the blacks more room) and moved as far back in the bus as she could in the white section. Later she came to the operator and asked him to make the blacks stop laughing at her. He told her he could not stop them from laughing and she then went into a tirade. A black girl made some remark, the woman rushed back and a fight started. The operator separated them and had no further trouble. “This woman causes some trouble every morning,” the driver claimed.
Scenario #5: A fight started when the conductor tried to make a black, and allegedly intoxicated, passenger stop cursing. The black man lunged at the conductor who shoved him back. A fight started and the black man kicked the conductor back into his seat. The motorman came to assist and the black man took out a knife. The conductor took out a gun and hit the black man on the head and knocked him down. Another black man offered to take the first black man off and they got off the train. The train made the downtown loop and stopped at 2nd Avenue and 17th Street where this black man boarded with an open knife in an upraised hand. Another fight started and the conductor shot him.
Name: ________________________________ Hour: ____________
Directions: Within your group, read the provided scenario and answer the following:
1. Identify the conflict (fight, argument, shooting, etc.), where it occurred and who was involved.
2. Who instigated the conflict and why did it occur?
3. With the members in your group, discuss any other alternatives that could have resolved the conflict.
4. In the end did those involved gain anything from the incident? Why or why not?
Jim Crow: This term refers to a type of racial caste system and forced racial segregation that existed primarily, but not exclusively, in the Southern and Border States between 1877 and the mid 1960s. These laws tightly controlled social interactions between blacks and whites and as a result, relegated African Americans to the status of second-class citizens. The effects of Jim Crow were most obvious in the separate public facilities for blacks and whites, such as restrooms, drinking fountains and all forms of public transportation.
color board: This was used to separate a bus or train cars into separate sections for blacks and whites. The bus driver or train conductor would move the board forward or backward depending on the number of white passengers. For example, as more white passengers boarded the bus or train the driver would move the board further back to make more room, leaving less room for black passengers and therefore, requiring more of them to stand.
resistance: The act of striving to work against, to remain firm against, oppose or withstand force.
segregation: To separate from others or from a main body or group, or to impose the separation of a race or class from the rest of society.
working class: The social standing of people who are employed in low wage positions that require physical labor and/or repetitive tasks.
militant: Individual who chooses to engage in combative or aggressive behavior, especially for an ideal or cause.
boycott: To abstain from buying something or dealing with someone as a form of protest.
Aryan supremacy: This is the ideology that whites are physically and intellectually superior to all other races. It became well known during World War II as the driving force behind Hitler’s annihilation of millions of European Jews.
“separate but equal”: The Supreme Court doctrine established in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. In this precedent-setting case, the Supreme Court upheld the Louisiana “Separate Car Law” which created separate but equal train cars for blacks and whites. The doctrine made it legal for other states to extend this principle to other forms of public transportation and public facilities.
oppression: To keep down by unjust use of force or authority, or to weigh heavily on the mind or spirit. It also means difficult to bear, burdensome and can be used in reference to those who are tyrannical or are affected by tyranny.
assertive: To state positively or affirm, to defend or maintain, or to put oneself forward boldly or forcefully.
civil society: A set of intermediate associations which are neither the state nor the extended family; civil society therefore includes voluntary associations and firms and other corporate bodies.
empathy: Identification with and understanding the feelings of another person.
philanthropic acts: The giving of one’s time, talent or treasure for the sake of another, or for the common good.
commons: Resources which are not owned, either privately or by the state, but are left open for free use by all comers.
Shortly after 5:00 P.M. on Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks finished her work as a seamstress at a local department store in Montgomery, Alabama, and boarded a bus. What began as an ordinary bus ride home became the event that sparked the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
According to Montgomery law, African Americans were required to sit in the back of the bus and give up their seats to white passengers as the bus filled. When Parks was asked to give up her seat to a white passenger on the particular evening, however, she refused. Immediately, the driver stopped the bus and called two policemen. Parks was arrested and taken to jail for violating the city ordinance.
Edgar Daniel Nixon, head of the NAACP in Montgomery, posted a $100 bond to get Parks released. He then called a meeting of African American leaders to determine what action they should take. The meeting was held in the basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where a young man named Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been appointed minister. By the end of the long evening, the leaders agreed to call a one-day boycott of all city buses for Monday, December 5. Although Parks was not the first person to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, Nixon decided that she would be the last.
Over the weekend, thousands of leaflets announcing the boycott were printed and distributed. On Monday morning, the first buses began their run through the African American neighborhoods. They finished the same way they began—empty. There were no black passengers. The boycott was a success. Immediately, organizers voted to continue it. They set up the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and named Martin Luther King, Jr. its leader.
Meanwhile, Parks went to court. She was charged with violating a 1947 segregation statute. The judge found her guilty and fined her $10 plus $4 in court costs. The NAACP appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the boycott continued, the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council took action. They threatened the MIA organizers and harassed African Americans on the street. Hundreds of leaders and supporters, including Parks, were arrested. Many lost their jobs, and King’s house was dynamited. Still the boycott continued.
People walked. They rode bicycles, caught cabs and joined car pools. They drove wagons, hitchhiked, rode mules and then walked some more. One elderly woman declared, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”
After 381 days of boycotting, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Parks and declared the Alabama laws on bus segregation unconstitutional. In April 1956, the bus company, which had lost more that $750,000 during the long boycott, agreed to integrate seating on its buses and hire African American drivers. This was the first major step in a decades-long fight for civil rights in America.
Taken from Extraordinary African Americans by Susan Altman
Directions: Use words or phrases to compare and contrast actions of militants in the 1940s with those of Rosa Parks in the 1950s
“I’m just an average citizen. Many black people before me were arrested for defying bus laws. They prepared the way.”
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