Forty-nine years ago, on April 4, 1968, an assassin’s bullet silenced the eloquent voice of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But in the mid-1950s, Dr. King and Richard Durham’s lives intersected in Durham’s Chicago hometown. At the time, Durham served as an organizer and program director with the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) – one of the most progressive labor unions in Chicago.
In mid-February, 1956 Durham attended a UPWA meeting with other union members, a local preacher, and Dr. King – then a 26-year-old Baptist minister described as the “outstanding leader of a ‘passive resistance’ boycott” in its infancy in Montgomery, Alabama.
Dr. King summarized the events leading to the ongoing boycott of Montgomery’s segregated bus system by its African American residents. On December 1, 1955, a respected community member, 42-year-old Rosa Parks, was arrested and jailed after refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white person. Her arrest sparked outrage. Black community members and their religious leaders decided to stage a one-day boycott of all city buses on Monday, December 5th.
Dr. King told Richard Durham and his UPWA colleagues that only eight Negroes traveled by bus that day—in a city where roughly 75 percent of Montgomery’s black population, about 47,000 strong, used the bus system. In the city’s Holt Street Baptist Church that Monday evening, Dr. King delivered a fiery speech that electrified the overflowing crowd. Montgomery’s African American citizens resolved to fight on, extending the bus boycott indefinitely.
To support the boycott, some of Montgomery’s Black residents dusted off their shoes and walked everywhere.
Some stayed home.
But for the thousands of other Blacks who needed it, the MIA established an alternate transportation system. Individual car owners and churches volunteered their vehicles; Negro taxi drivers reduced their fares. Dr. King said that the MIA needed about $300 a day just to pay for gas.
Some funds to support the boycott came from donations received at mass meetings. Prominent souls such as Montgomery pharmacist Richard Harris and internationally acclaimed entertainer Harry Belafonte also contributed. Still, Dr. King told Durham and his UPWA colleagues that unless additional aid flowed in “to boost the morale of the people,” the two-month-old boycott might soon have to end.
Richard Durham asked Dr. King if similar boycotts in cities like Mobile, Alabama, or Sioux City, Iowa, would help this boycott effort. Durham’s suggestion was based on research which revealed that the corporate owners of Montgomery’s bus line owned subsidiaries in several other cities throughout the United States.
In solidarity with the boycott and Durham’s Program Department, union members “committed ourselves to [raising] $20,000,” UPWA district president Addie Wyatt recalled. “They divided that [amount] up between the districts so that each one of our [nine] districts had responsibility to raise funds and send it into the international union.” According to Wyatt, her district led the way by raising about $12,000 for the boycott.
For almost one year, Montgomery’s Black residents stayed away from and nearly bankrupted the city’s bus system. Finally, on November 13, 1956, victory reigned. The United States Supreme Court declared Alabama’s law mandating segregated buses unconstitutional.
I hope that you enjoyed this excerpt from Word Warrior and this brief tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Durham’s legacy.
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