Black sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway (1872–1967) took issue with inadequate recognition of Black achievement. He dedicated his career to creating and marketing affordable plaster busts and other commemorative sculpture, literally putting Black activists, educators, ministers, and dozens of other individuals on a pedestal. These stood in stark contrast to lawn jockeys and other statuary that emphasized caricatures and stereotypes.
Plaster Plaque of George Washington Carver (1864?–1943) Cast by Isaac Scott Hathaway, 1945./ THF152082
Hathaway remembered visiting a Midwestern museum when he was nine years old (around 1881), with his father, Robert Elijah Hathaway (1842–1923). The young Hathaway wondered why museums did not include statues of Black people. His father explained that white people modeled their own, and that if Black Americans wanted to see sculptures of Black Americans, “we will have to grow our own sculptors.”
This museum visit changed Hathaway’s life, as he recalled in a 1939 Federal Writers’ Project interview and in a 1958 article in the Negro History Bulletin. He studied art during the era of the New Negro, a movement of the 1890s to 1910s that emphasized African and Black American contributions to the arts, literature, and culture. He taught school, created sculpture, and distributed his plaster casts through the Afro Art Company, which he launched after he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1907.
Hathaway moved when opportunities to further ceramics education arose. He relocated to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, by 1915 to launch ceramics education at the Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). He moved his company, renamed the Isaac Hathaway Art Company, to Pine Bluff at the same time. In 1937, he joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, to introduce a ceramics curriculum there. In 1947, he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to direct ceramics instruction at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University).
Plaster Cast of George Washington Carver's Hand, 1943./ THF34092
The Henry Ford has two of Hathaway’s plaster casts. Hathaway gave them to Henry Ford in December 1945, explaining that he wanted Ford to have the small plaque (shown at the beginning of this post) and “a cast … made from the hand of the late Dr. George Washington Carver” (shown above). The plaque was one of three types of casts of Carver that Hathaway made. The others included a small bust (around one foot tall) and a heroic bust, visible in this photograph of the artist at work (courtesy of the Tuskegee University Archives).
Carver’s hands attracted a lot of attention, long and strong and well-worn after years of physical labor. Based on Hathaway’s description, it appears that he made the cast of Carver’s hand after Carver died on January 5, 1943. Hathaway instructed students in techniques he used. Photographs show him instructing students in creating molds of their hands at Alabama Polytechnic University (now Auburn University) around 1947.
Hathaway’s plaster casts remind us of the importance of acknowledging Black accomplishments. Others followed his examples.
Benjamin Akines (c1904–?), a bricklayer and brick mason living in Jackson, Mississippi, knew of Henry Ford’s interest in and respect for Carver’s work. Akines gave Ford a bust of the Black scientist in 1941, four years before Hathaway sent his two casts to Ford.
Bust of George Washington Carver, circa 1941. / THF170783
Akines sent the plaster bust and a letter directly to Henry Ford: “Enclosed you will find a token (in the form of a bust) of one of whom I am told you esteem very highly … I trust this will mean a moment of happiness to you.” Akines claimed that he “was divinely inspired to model,” though he worked as a bricklayer. The back of the bust represents the work of a bricklayer, sculpted with a cut stone foundation with a laid brick pier. This brickwork was his signature, as Akines included bricks in other creative works. On November 10, 1931, he received a patent for an ornamental clock case in the form of a brick façade and sides (Patent Des. 85,507).
Bust of George Washington Carver, circa 1941, Cast by Benjamin Akines. / THF170784
Eager to share his efforts, Akines communicated his news to the Chicago Defender, the Black newspaper in the then second-largest U.S. city, Chicago, Illinois. It reported that “Akines, a bricklayer who indulges in sculpturing as a hobby,” gave Ford a plaster cast of Carver, and that Ford’s secretary and Carver himself acknowledged his generosity (“Bricklayer-Sculpturor [sic] is Lauded for Bust of Carver,” July 12, 1941).
It is difficult to know whether others who cast busts of Carver influenced Akines’ approach. For example, German-born Steffen Thomas (1906–1990) sculpted a clay model of Carver during a 1936 visit to Tuskegee. This was the model from which he cast the sculpture recognizing Carver’s 40 years of service to Tuskegee. The gift received media coverage at the time Carver received it in 1937 and appeared prominently during the dedication of the Carver Museum in 1941, given its location on a plinth outside the museum.
George Washington Carver and Austin W. Curtis, Jr., at Tuskegee Institute with Sculpture by Steffen Thomas, circa 1938./ THF213732
These last two examples indicate more recent commemorations of Black historical figures. One represents a respectful but commercial venture, and the other an exceptional recognition.
Commemorative Bust of Rosa Parks (1913–2005), designed by Sarah’s Attic, Inc., 1995. / THF98391
A popular Michigan-based figurine manufacturer, Sarah’s Attic., Inc., released a limited-edition bust of rights activist Rosa Parks in 1995. Cast of synthetic resin and hand-painted, it was one of four “Faces of Courage” in the Black Heritage Collection. The others featured abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a Buffalo Soldier, and a Tuskegee Airman. The Rosa Parks bust was one of 9,898 made and distributed through a commercial contract, with Sarah’s Attic holding the copyright and Rosa Parks holding the license.
Commemorative Bust of Detroit Lions Tight End Charlie Sanders (1946–2015), 2007. / THF165543
This cast metal bust of the Detroit Lions’ legendary tight end Charlie Sanders exists because of his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Hall commissioned Tuck Langland, an artist and retired university educator, to cast Sanders. Langland first created a bust out of clay based on photographs and a visit with Sanders. That clay statue became the model for the cast bronze bust displayed in the Hall of Fame Gallery in Canton, Ohio, and the copy presented to Sanders (and later donated to The Henry Ford).
So many variables exist in the business of commemoration.
When Isaac Scott Hathaway created respectful sculptures of Black Americans, he challenged white exceptionalism. Who decided who received recognition? Hathaway. What criteria informed his decisions? He selected subjects he respected, but as an educator, he selected people with lessons to teach, and as a businessman, he selected subjects that would sell. Disagreements over selections can derail seemingly straightforward acknowledgment.
What form should the recognition take? Hathaway mass-produced inexpensive plaster casts. Others create one-of-a-kind sculpture or mass-produce limited-edition items. Other recognition in the form of a historical marker or a street sign can draw attention to places of significance and the people who lived there.
Recognition of Black accomplishments remains important—in fact, critical—to understanding the human experience.
“The Hathaway Family: A Journey from Slavery to Civil Rights,” a paper compiled by scholars Yvonne Giles, Reinette Jones, Henri Linton, Brian McDade, Quantia "Key" M. Fletcher, and Mark Wilson, based in materials at these institutions: Alabama State University, Montgomery, Alabama; Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama; the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum, Lexington, Kentucky; the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Little Rock, Arkansas; Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama; the University Museum and Cultural Center, University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. (n.d.).
“Isaac Scott Hathaway,” a product of the Appalachian Teaching Project, Auburn University, and the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center (2012).
"Isaac Scott Hathaway: Artist and Teacher," Negro History Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 4 (January 1958), pp. 74, 78-81.
Perry, Rhussus L. Federal Writers’ Project Interview of Isaac Hathaway. February 2, 1939. Folder 60, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers' Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Baseball autographed for All-Star centerfielder Curt Flood by one of his heroes, civil rights icon Rosa Parks. / THF96558
Curt Flood was an All-Star, Gold-Glove centerfielder for the powerhouse St. Louis Cardinals baseball team of the 1960s. He undoubtedly signed thousands of baseballs during and after his career. So why would Flood save a baseball signed by Rosa Parks among his personal effects?
The ball is part of a story of inspiration, courage, and perseverance.
Inspired to Take a Stand
Curt Flood grew up in Oakland, California, and had no direct experience with the intense racism of the Jim Crow South. He was among the first generation of Black players in Major League Baseball. In 1956, as a 19-year-old minor leaguer in the Deep South, Flood came face-to-face with the virulent racial hatred that had arisen in the wake of the 1955 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in schools, and from the ongoing Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. It was the courage shown by Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson (the player famous for breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier), and others that gave Flood the strength to persevere through his two-year minor league stint.
Flood joined the Major Leagues when he was signed by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1958. He and two of his new teammates, Bill White and Bob Gibson, became increasingly outspoken about segregationist aspects of the Cardinals operation. These men successfully pressed the organization to patronize integrated hotels and restaurants. Flood also joined Jackie Robinson at NAACP rallies across the South.
Curt Flood was featured on the August 19, 1968, cover of Sports Illustrated. The issue, pictured here with Flood’s St. Louis Cardinals hat, called him "Baseball's Best Centerfielder." / THF76590
Fighting the Reserve Clause
Flood's stellar 12-year career with the Cardinals ended suddenly in 1969, when he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies were a team going nowhere, with a fan base and management that were hostile to Black players. Flood had little desire to be part of that team. But the reserve clause gave Flood no choice in the matter. This clause was a standard part of every baseball player's contract, requiring him to play wherever the owners wanted him to play. The player had no say in the matter.
Flood's only options were to go along with the trade or retire. His first instinct was to retire. But, after reconsidering, he decided to challenge the reserve clause and sue Major League Baseball. Flood knew that this action would, in effect, end his baseball career and that he personally would gain little in the end. But the reserve clause made Flood feel like a piece of property, and he could not let that injustice stand.
After twelve years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the several States.
It is my desire to play in 1970, and I am capable of playing. I have received a contract offer from the Philadelphia Club, but I believe I have the right to consider offers from other clubs before making any decisions. I, therefore, request that you make known to all the Major League Clubs my feelings in the matter, and advise them of my availability for the 1970 season.
Sincerely yours, Curt Flood
Lonely Path to the Supreme Court
As expected, Major League Baseball rejected Flood’s request. Over the next two and a half years, Flood, with the support of Marvin Miller of the Players Association (the fledgling professional baseball players' union), pursued his case in court, then in appeals court, and finally to the United States Supreme Court. At the inception of the suit, Flood became one of the most hated men in baseball—he was criticized in the press for trying to destroy baseball and received mountains of hate mail from fans. But it was the lack of support from active players that hurt Flood the most. Some supported Flood privately but feared retribution if they spoke out. Others were outright hostile and tried to undermine the suit even though it would benefit all players. Only baseball outsiders testified on Flood's behalf: his hero, Jackie Robinson; Hank Greenberg, who battled anti-Semitism throughout his career with the Detroit Tigers; and the iconoclastic Bill Veeck, who had owned several major and minor league baseball teams.
Curt Flood (left) and pitcher Bob Gibson had been close friends since their days in the minor leagues. Gibson privately supported Flood in his activism, but despite being one of the best pitchers in the game, he feared he would be ostracized from baseball if he backed Flood publicly. / THF98488
The court battles took a physical and emotional toll on Flood. He fell out of shape physically and turned from a social drinker to an alcoholic. The relentless negative attention from the press and fans forced Flood out of the country, first to Denmark, and later to Spain. He lost touch with his children and, by 1975, was nearly destitute and homeless. Flood was despondent and depressed. In 1978, Richard Reeves interviewed him for Esquire magazine as part of a series on men who had stood up to the system. Reeves said, "He was about the saddest man I ever met."
The closely divided Supreme Court ruled against Flood in the end. The majority opinion said, in effect, that the reserve clause was "an anomaly," but that it was Congress's job to fix it, not the courts’. Despite the Supreme Court loss, Flood's fight had created an opening to challenge baseball's reserve clause on the bargaining table. Within a few years, Jim "Catfish" Hunter became the first free agent, followed closely by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. While Curt Flood lost the case, his efforts transformed the relationship between owners and players across professional sports, and for people with unique and valuable skills in the world at large.
Curt Flood signed this copy of the Supreme Court summary report of his suit against Major League Baseball. / THF98457
Recovery and Recognition
After more than a decade in a personal wilderness, Flood began to turn his life around with the help of friends. He was treated for alcoholism in 1980, re-married in 1986, gained a new family, and reconnected with the children of his first marriage. Flood took up the late Jackie Robinson's cause, pushing for more diversity in the management of baseball. Along with other former players, he co-founded a group known as the Baseball Network for that purpose.
In 1987, Curt Flood received the NAACP Jackie Robinson Sports Award. While he was never hired for a position in baseball management, Flood became a regular at old-timers’ games. There, many former players took the opportunity to thank him personally. In 1994, Flood was featured in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary and attended the premiere, where he met President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Not long after, he met another hero from his youth, Rosa Parks, who signed a baseball for him. Flood wrote to friends in a Christmas letter that year, "I am in the process of living happily ever after."
In 1987, the NAACP recognized Curt Flood's fight by awarding him the Jackie Robinson Sports Award. / THF76582
In the summer of 1995, Flood developed throat cancer; he died on January 20, 1997. During that year and a half, many people visited him to express gratitude for what he had done for baseball and for society at large. At his death, Curt Flood was eulogized by many, including Jesse Jackson and conservative columnist George Will, who compared him to Rosa Parks.
Curt Flood and his wife, Judy Pace Flood, with Rosa Parks in 1994. / THF98496
While in retrospect, it may seem as though changes in society are predetermined and expected, Curt Flood's experience shows that they are not a sure thing—and they are never easy. The reserve clause was a legal anachronism that stripped players of their freedom to control their own careers. It took a successful man—inspired by heroes who had taken similar steps before him—who was willing to give up everything to make that change occur.
Jim McCabe is former Curator and Collections Manager at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran in February 2010 as part of our “Pic of the Month” series. It was updated for the blog by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.
This April 1956 issue of Liberation magazine featured the Montgomery bus boycott on its cover. / THF139343
In the 2021 book, Time to Teach: A History of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, Civil Rights movement leader Julian Bond (1940–2015) stated that the Montgomery bus boycott provides a case study of how a social movement starts, develops, and grows. Such movements, Bond continued, begin with a concrete, precipitating event (in this case, Rosa Parks’s arrest), but they are usually the result of known or shared incidents on the part of the participants. A successful movement, he added, contains agitation, fosters fellowship, sustains morale, and develops tactics. The Montgomery bus boycott embodied all of these things—aided by both the words and actions of well-known leaders, such as Reverends Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy, and the active involvement of countless others.
This 1957 comic book, produced by the international Fellowship of Reconciliation, highlighted the leadership of Martin Luther King, as well as featuring Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott. / THF110738
How did the Montgomery bus boycott begin? By 1955, Black activists and community leaders in Montgomery, Alabama, were exploring the idea of a city-wide bus boycott—an organized refusal to ride the buses after decades of humiliating incidents and indignities that the Black community suffered. But they knew they would need the united support of the city's African American bus riders, a notion that was unprecedented, untested, and likely to fail, given past experience. After some fits and starts in trying to find an appropriate test case, they finally found that test case when Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus. Rosa Parks’s arrest led directly to a city-wide bus boycott, during which members of the Black community willingly walked, shared rides, and worked out carpools for 381 days—despite continual resistance from white segregationists in the community.
Bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, currently in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF134576
Accompanying The Henry Ford’s acquisition of the Rosa Parks bus in 2001 was a binder of newspaper clippings recounting the events of Rosa Parks’s arrest and the ensuing bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. These had been clipped, dated, taped onto pieces of blank white paper, and compiled in chronological order into a binder by Montgomery bus station manager Charles “Homer” Cummings.
I had initially naively thought that these articles would contain a neat, objective recounting of the bus boycott. A closer perusal, however, revealed that this was, of course, not the case. Newspaper journalists write with a story-based angle in mind, one that will capture the attention of their readers—and these accounts are no exception. Moreover, even though the newspapers included here—primarily the Montgomery Advertiser—had a large following among both Black and white citizens, the journalists who wrote these articles were white, as were the newspaper company owners, the Montgomery city bus company owners and operators, and the local Montgomery government that maintained ties with both of these.
Keeping these perspectives in mind, this selection of clippings—with occasional added content to provide context—provides a portal to the events that unfolded during the first three months of the twelve-month boycott. These clippings not only offer a powerful lens into how quickly and deeply the boycott divided members of the Montgomery community, but they also uncover a clear sense of the Black community’s collective strength and resilience when faced with continual obstacles.
Note that the images below were adapted from the original articles to emphasize the headlines; if you want to read the entire articles or see the original scrapbook pages, you can find links to those pages in the image captions.
“5000 at Meeting Outline Boycott; Bullet Clips Bus,” by Joe Azbell, Montgomery Advertiser, December 5, 1955 / adapted from THF147008
As the boycott began, an estimated 90–100% of local African Americans chose to participate. They walked, shared rides, and worked out carpools
This “mass demonstration of black pride” took by surprise the city’s white leaders, who were certain the boycott would end soon. Mayor W.A. Gayle was said to have remarked, “comes the first rainy day and the Negroes will be back on the buses.
But the Black community held fast and strengthened their resolve, inspired by ongoing mass meetings led by community and church leaders. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., arose as a key leader, increasingly articulating a vision for nonviolent protest.
“Negroes to Continue Boycott,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 5, 1955 / adapted from THF147011
According to this article, on the evening of the first day of the boycott, “an estimated 5000 hymn-singing Negroes” packed the Holt Street Baptist Church and voted to continue “a racial boycott against the Montgomery City buses.” The “emotional group” unanimously passed a resolution “with roaring applause” to extend the boycott beyond the first day, refraining from riding city buses “until the bus situation is settled to the satisfaction of its patrons.”
Detailed in the article is the speech given at the meeting by “the Rev. M.L. King, pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” who told the crowd that the “tools of justice” must be used to attain the “day of freedom, justice and equality.” He urged “unity of Negroes,” for “we must stick together and work together if we are to win and we will win in standing up for our rights as Americans.”
City officials assumed there would be violence but found little. The headline of this article reported that a bullet hit the rear of a city bus but further reading revealed that the bus driver could not determine from where it had been fired.
“Bus Boycott Conference Fails to Find Solution,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 9, 1955 / adapted from THF147024
On December 8, a delegation of Black leaders issued a formal list of requests to the city bus company and political officials, one of several attempts to reach a compromise. Led by Rev. King, the Black delegation assured bus company officials that “they were not demanding an end to segregated seating (as this was the law).” Instead, they issued three requests: more courteous treatment on the buses; the hiring of Black drivers on routes serving Black neighborhoods; and a first-come-first-serve seating by race, back to front and front to back, with no one having to give up their seat or stand over an empty seat.
City and bus company officials expressed surprise at these grievances and refused to comply with them. The bus company responded only by disciplining a few of its employees while avoiding the larger questions of systemic racial inequity and injustice on city buses. They also declared that they had no intention of hiring “Negro drivers” (stating “the time is not right in Montgomery”) and dismissed the third demand as illegal under existing segregation laws.
According to the article, Rev. King’s response was simple: “We are merely trying to peacefully obtain better accommodations for Negroes.”
“Notice to Bus Patrons,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 10, 1955 / adapted from THF147026
The Montgomery city bus company, lacking its usual business, soon raised fares, cut services to Black neighborhoods, begged local citizens to use the buses for Christmas shopping, and asked the city for help. The year ended with the mayor and other city officials determined to get tough, to find new ways of dealing with the Black community’s united display of nonviolent resistance to segregation with their own united response.
“Negro Rule in Boycott Is to Walk,” Alabama Journal, December 12, 1955 / adapted from THF147029
As the boycott continued into the second week, Black taxicab operators told their drivers to charge only 10 cents a person for Black passengers—the same price as bus fare. Almost immediately, Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers threatened to arrest any Black taxi driver who charged less than the minimum 45-cent fare.
Responding to this, Black leaders implemented a carpool system to support citizens taking part in the boycott. They called on car owners to volunteer their vehicles and urged those with licenses to volunteer as drivers. Ministers also volunteered to drive cars. These “car pools” had to be organized and executed precisely, with an intricate web of pickup and drop-off points that were developed by postal workers who knew the layout of neighborhoods.
Eventually 275 to 300 Black-owned vehicles transported thousands of boycotters, while thousands more walked. As the article described, “None thumbed rides. As each car passed, the Negro driver would inquire of the men and women on the street corner where they were going. If they were going in the same direction, they loaded in.” In addition, “scores of Negroes were walking, their lunches in brown paper sacks under their arms. None spoke to white people. They exchanged little talk among themselves. It was an event almost solemn.”
While the newspaper article claimed that the police were out in force to “protect” the boycotters, in fact, police harassment was formidable. Local police pulled over cars, intimidated drivers, and gave tickets for real or imagined infractions.
“White Citizens of Central Alabama / Rally to the Support of Your Central Alabama Citizens Council,” Montgomery Advertiser, December 15, 1955 / adapted from THF147035
This announcement is a membership appeal to white segregationists in the Montgomery community. In Fall 1955, a local group of the White Citizen’s Council (WCC) had been established in Montgomery to provide organized economic, political, and at times physical resistance to impending desegregation. Before the boycott, the council had less than 100 members. But after the boycott started, membership swelled to 14,000 members in three months.
The WCC played an increasing role in public life, believing that white citizens’ way of life was under siege. Whites were pressured to join—in fact, it was dangerous to be white and not join, as such people could be accused of sympathizing with the Black community.
“Mayor Stops Boycott Talk,” Montgomery Advertiser, January 24, 1956 / adapted from THF147077
In January, tensions were rising. The Montgomery bus company was on the verge of bankruptcy. WCC members supported economic reprisals. Mayor Gayle, who had been previously known as “pleasant and easy to approach,” now felt increased pressure from hardline segregationists, and urged putting an end to the boycott. Leaders of the Black community continued to take the stance that, “More than 99 per cent of the Negro citizens of Montgomery have stated their positions and it remains the same. The bus protest is still on and it will last until our proposals are given sympathetic treatment.”
But Mayor Gayle had had enough. This article describes his new “get tough” policy—stating that he would hold the line against integration and that there would be “no more discussions with the Negro boycott leaders until they are ready to end the boycott.” According to the article, Gayle remarked that, “We have pussyfooted around on this boycott long enough and it has come time to be frank and honest.” Furthermore, he made the accusation that, “The Negro leaders have proved they are not interested in ending the boycott but rather in prolonging it so that they may stir up racial strife.”
The city commissioners and members of the WCC were convinced that most Blacks wanted to ride the buses, but that they were tricked and manipulated by the boycott leaders, whom city officials began to refer to as “a group of Negro radicals.” Furthermore, they assumed that there was a single instigator behind the boycott, someone behind it who was inciting otherwise cooperative Black community members to boycott. They pinpointed Rev. King as that instigator, certain that getting rid of him would put an end to the boycott once and for all. They attacked King through words (calling him, among other names, a “troublesome outsider”) and, soon, through action.
“End to Free ‘Taxi Service,’”Montgomery Advertiser, January 25, 1956 / adapted from THF147081
One of Mayor Gayle’s first moves in his new “get tough” policy was to crack down on Black carpool drivers, especially urging white Montgomerians to halt the practice of using their automobiles as “taxi services for Negro maids and cooks who work for them.” As Gayle remarked, “When a white person gives a Negro a single penny for transportation or helps a Negro with his transportation, even if it’s a block ride, he is helping the Negro radicals who lead the boycott.” He also insisted, “We are not going to be a part of any program that will get Negroes to ride the buses again at the price of the destruction of our heritage and way of life.”
At this point, police were told to step up their issuing of tickets to Black drivers, whether they were deserved or not. They also harassed boycotters waiting at pickup stations, accusing some of “vagrancy.”
“None Injured after Bombing of King Home,” Montgomery Advertiser, January 31, 1956 / adapted from THF147091
Once city and WCC leaders (now one and the same) decided that Rev. King was the “ringleader” of the boycott, they focused their efforts on going after him. They arrested him for speeding and threw him in jail—attracting bigger and noisier mass meetings and more determination by the Black community to continue the boycott. King received threatening letters and phone calls from both angry white segregationists and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
This anger led to outright violence on January 30, when a bomb was thrown through a window of King’s home. As a crowd of about 300 anxious members of the Black community gathered outside his house, Rev. King asked the group to be “peaceful.” “I did not start this boycott,” he told the crowd. “I was asked by you to serve as your spokesman. I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped this movement will not stop. If I am stopped our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”
"Grand Jurors Told to Probe Legality of Bus Boycott," Alabama Journal, February 13, 1956 / adapted from THF147126
The month of February saw both sides digging in, strengthening their resolve. The racial divide grew wider. White pushback increased, with more arrests. Black determination gained strength.
Continuing the Mayor’s “get tough” policy, a local circuit judge impaneled a Montgomery County grand jury to determine whether the bus boycott was legal. “If it is illegal,” Mayor Gayle said, “the boycott must be stopped.” He declared the jurors to be the “supreme inquisitorial body” and called the grand jury system “democracy in action.”
“Plan to End Bus Boycott is Rejected,” Mobile Register, February 21, 1956 / adapted from THF147150
This article reports that, on the eve of the grand jury report, Black leaders rejected a supposed “compromise plan for ending the boycott.” They argued that they did not see any change. The proposed seating was similar to the plan they had already rejected. Promises for driver courtesy were not called out and individual bus drivers still had the authority to assign seats. Finally, boycotters were not promised that there would be no retaliation against them for their participation in the boycott. At a mass meeting, the Black community voted to continue the boycott with a count of 3,998 to 2.
In “a prepared statement following the meeting,” Rev. Ralph Abernathy stated that, “We have walked for 11 weeks in the cold and rain. Now the weather is warming up. Therefore, we will walk on until some better proposals are forthcoming from our city fathers.”
“The protest is still on,” he confirmed, “and approximately 50,000 colored persons have stated that they will continue to walk.”
“75 Nabbed by Deputies on Boycott Indictments,”Montgomery Advertiser, February 23, 1956 / adapted from THF147165
The city called more than 200 Blacks to testify before the grand jury, including King, 23 other ministers, and all carpool drivers. The indictment was based upon an obscure 1921 state law prohibiting boycotts “without just cause or legal excuse” (and referencing an earlier 1903 law that outlawed boycotts in response to Black streetcar protests). Those indicted were accused of taking an “active part in the 12-week-old racial boycott” against the Montgomery City lines buses.
Rev. Abernathy called it a “a great injustice.” Many indicted boycott leaders showed defiance by voluntarily turning themselves in and drawing attention away from singular blame on Martin Luther King. Hundreds of Black spectators shouted encouragement, cheered, and applauded as leaders showed up one by one to be “taken through the arrest process at the county jail.” The act of being arrested had become a badge of honor.
"Boycotters Plan ‘Passive’ Battle," Montgomery Advertiser, February 24, 1956 / adapted from THF147180
The boycott indictments strengthened the resolve of the Black community. At a mass meeting that an estimated 5,000 attended, Black leaders called for a Prayer and Pilgrimage Day and asked all Black citizens to walk that day.
The Central Alabama White Citizens Council was incensed about the continuation of the boycott. State Senator Sam Englehardt of Macon County, Chairman of the Central Alabama Citizens’ Council, said, “If these people [who were indicted] succeed in getting the Negroes of Montgomery to break this law, and get away with it, then who’s to say what unlawful act they will advocate next?”
Rosa Parks reflected the feelings of the Black community that day by remarking, “The white segregationists tried to put pressure to stop us. Instead of stopping us, they would encourage us to go on.”
These events, as documented through a selection of newspaper clippings compiled in a bus manager’s scrapbook, mark just the first three months of the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott went on to last more than one year—381 days to be exact—with members of the Black community enduring continual arrests, bombings, jailing, threats, and general harassment until the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared segregation on Alabama buses to be unconstitutional. Before it was over, it would become what Julian Bond referred to in his book as nothing short of “a struggle to achieve democracy in the mid-20th century.”
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. Many thanks also to Hannah Glodich, Graphic Designer at The Henry Ford, for adapting the original scrapbook pages into the images shown in this post.
Montgomery city bus in which Rosa Parks refused to move to the back, now in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF14922
This year marks the 65th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to stand up and move to the back of this city bus from Montgomery, Alabama (above). In our previous blog posts, we have focused primarily upon the story of Rosa Parks herself—her background, character, motivation, and legacy.
In 1992, Rosa Parks visited Greenfield Village with a group of students during a "Freedom Tour" sponsored by the Raymond and Rosa Parks Foundation. After she spoke to students, she posed here in the Mattox House, the 1930s Georgia home of an African American family. / THF123775
We now take the opportunity to acknowledge the important contributions of numerous other individuals to this legacy.
Our first acknowledgment goes to those who helped lay the foundations for Rosa Parks’ act: the many black Montgomerians who put up with mistreatment and humiliation on segregated buses for years, and even decades, so that when the right time came they were ready to take collective action; to early community activists in Montgomery like Raymond Parks (Rosa’s husband), Mary Fair Burks, Rev. Vernon Johns, Rufus Lewis, Johnnie Carr, and J. E. Pierce; and to Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, who made the conscious decision to refuse to stand up and move to the back of the buses on which they rode just months before Rosa Parks.
Token used on Montgomery bus lines, about 1955 / THF8293
Second, we recognize the important work of community organizations that worked toward effecting change at the time—the Women’s Political Council, the Montgomery Improvement Association, and the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP (for which Rosa Parks had worked); to black community leaders who shaped these organizations and mobilized the black community to take action as a response to Rosa Parks’ arrest—including Jo Ann Robinson, E.D. Nixon, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and to young black lawyer and activist Fred Gray for defending both Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks as well as for bringing other notable civil rights cases to court.
Liberation Magazine from April 1956, featuring the Montgomery bus boycott on its cover. / THF139343
Finally, we acknowledge Montgomery’s black community for courageously defying the city’s segregated bus practices by boycotting Montgomery buses after Rosa Parks’ act. For 381 days, this community surmounted obstacle after obstacle created by those attempting to obstruct and put an end to this boycott. Their courage and determination set an example for others, both then and now.
The story of the Montgomery bus boycott and how it unfolded will appear in future blog posts.
For more background on the story of Rosa Parks, see:
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a soft-spoken African American seamstress, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This led to a city-wide bus boycott by the African American community that was so successful many consider Rosa Parks’ act to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.
It’s a powerful story: one person’s simple act of courage can change the world. Today it’s difficult to imagine the real risks that Rosa Parks faced and the tremendous amount of courage she possessed in refusing to give up her seat that day. To get a better sense of this, we must explore the nature of segregated travel in the Jim Crow South.
Separate and Unequal Jim Crow laws -- first enacted in the 1880s by angry and resentful Southern whites against freed African Americans -- separated Blacks from whites in all aspects of daily life. Favoring whites and repressing Blacks, these became an institutionalized form of inequality.
Jim Crow was a character created for a minstrel-show act during the 1830s, the date of this sheet music. The act -- featuring a white actor wearing Black makeup -- was meant to demean and make fun of African Americans.THF98689
In the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states had the legal power to require segregation between Blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws - now legally enforceable - spread across the South virtually anywhere that the two races might come in contact. Many of these practices lasted into the 1960s, until outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Through separate (and inferior) public facilities like building entrances, elevators, cashier windows, and drinking fountains, African Americans were reminded everywhere of their second-class status. THF13419andTHF13421
Travel in the segregated South was particularly humiliating for African Americans, beginning with railroads back in the 19th century. Traveling in or between southern states by railway, African Americans of all economic classes were generally relegated to primitive, uncomfortable "Jim Crow cars." Located just behind the locomotive, these were also the most dangerous cars should a collision or boiler explosion occur. Any Black railway passenger who complained or refused to comply with the rules could be forcibly removed from the train, beaten, or even killed. Conductors in some states were given policing power to enforce the rules or they could summon local police at station stops to back them up.
Southern states established segregated railroad station facilities for Blacks, with separate (and often inferior) ticket agent windows and restrooms, and often lacking the eating facilities available to whites. This sign was installed in a Louisville & Nashville Railroad station. THF93445
The coming of affordable automobiles seemed to provide southern Blacks with a way to get around the indignities of long-distance rail travel. However, as soon as Black motorists stopped along the road, Jim Crow laws returned in force. Service station and roadside restrooms were usually closed to African Americans, so they often resorted to stashing buckets or portable toilets in their trunks. Diners and restaurants regularly turned away Black customers, who took to bringing food along with them. Roadside motels often refused to admit Blacks, so they had to depend on the hospitality of their own people or chance the discovery of a "Negro" rooming house.
To avoid Jim Crows laws while travelling in the South (and unwritten Jim Crow practices followed in the North), Black motorists created their own tourist infrastructure, with specially published guides steering them to safe accommodations. This is the 1949 edition of "The Negro Motorist Green Book," produced by postal employee Victor H. Green, of Harlem, New York, from 1936 until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. THF77183
Physically separating Blacks and whites was most difficult on city transit systems. By 1905, every southern state had outlawed Blacks from sitting next to whites on trolleys and streetcars, while individual conductors usually ordered black patrons to move from this or that seat. Middle-class Blacks were particularly indignant about these laws and organized numerous long-forgotten boycotts and protests. But, like railroad conductors before them, streetcar conductors were given policing power - and even weapons - to enforce the laws. Any Blacks who challenged the rules of behavior were dealt with swiftly and harshly.
As buses replaced trolleys and streetcars on city streets, Jim Crow laws continued. Each state and city had different requirements and customs to signal how Blacks and whites were to be separated on the buses. But, as with earlier modes of transportation, individual drivers had great latitude in determining where people sat and the power to enforce their decisions.
By the 1950s, as many as 40,000 African Americans regularly rode the city buses in Rosa Parks’ home town of Montgomery, Alabama (compared with about 12,000 whites). Officially, 10 seats in the front of each bus were reserved for whites. These spaces were reserved no matter what. Often this meant Black riders were jammed in the aisle, standing over empty seats. If the white section filled up and more white riders came in, an entire row of Black passengers had to get up and move back. Bus drivers could demand more seats for whites at any time and in any number. Furthermore, drivers often forced African American riders, once they had paid their fare, to get off the bus and re-enter through the back door-sometimes driving away without them. (Rosa Parks had actually experienced this.) Those who didn’t comply with these rules could be not only verbally abused but also slapped, knocked on the floor, pushed out the door, beaten, or even killed (which did occur in a few little-publicized cases).
A Courageous Act As stories of abusive drivers and humiliating incidents continued to spread, anger in the black community grew. However, most of the time, the indignities went unchallenged. Expecting African Americans to resist these long-established laws and traditions meant asking them to risk great harm and to summon an extraordinary amount of personal courage.
By 1955, inspired by attempts in other cities, Black community leaders in Montgomery explored the idea of a city-wide bus boycott - an organized refusal to use the buses. But they would need the united support of the city's African American bus riders, a notion that was unprecedented, untested, and likely to fail given past experience. And, after some fits and starts in trying to find an appropriate test case, they realized that a successful boycott would require the determined action of someone who possessed a flawless character and reputation and, at the same time, could ignite the action of an entire community.
That person, it turned out, was Rosa Parks. Her action on December 1, 1955, was unplanned and spontaneous, although her life experiences had undoubtedly prepared her for that moment. She was not the first African American to challenge the segregation laws of the Montgomery city bus system. But her sterling reputation, her quiet strength, and her moral fortitude caused her act to successfully ignite action in others.
This Montgomery city bus, acquired by The Henry Ford in 2001, is the actual bus on which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat back in 1955. It now resides in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation's With Liberty & Justice For All exhibition.THF134576
Sparking a Movement Rosa Parks’ arrest for defying the Jim Crow law of segregation on Montgomery buses led to an immediate city-wide bus boycott, during which the Black community shared rides, walked, or worked out carpools-despite burnings, bombings, gunshots, and arrests. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted more than one year - 381 days to be exact -until the U.S. Supreme Court finally declared segregation on Alabama buses to be unconstitutional.
Rosa Parks' simple, courageous act gave African Americans everywhere a new sense of pride and purpose, and inspired non-violent protests in other cities. Because of this, many consider her singular act of protest on the bus to be the event that sparked the Civil Rights movement.
Unfortunately, the impact of her act took its toll on Rosa Parks herself. She lost her job, her marriage became strained, her quiet life was gone, and she received threatening phone calls and letters. In 1957, she left Montgomery, moving to Detroit and eventually working for Congressman John Conyers.
How did Rosa Parks summon the courage to defy decades of established rules and traditions about segregated travel? A few months after her arrest, she explained it like this:
The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose. I had decided that I would have to know, once and for all, what rights I had as a human being, and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.
Rosa Parks was not a civic, political, or religious leader. She was just an ordinary person. And she well knew the risks of her actions. But, through her example, she showed others what was possible. Her uncommon courage shines through as an inspiration to us today.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford. This post originally ran as part of our Pic of the Month series.
In a rare moment, one person’s simple act of courage can change the world. On the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, we pause to reflect on the impact and legacy of her courageous action.
Rosa’s awareness of social injustice started at an early age. As a girl growing up in Alabama, Rosa hated the disrespectful way that whites often treated black people. Her grandfather, a former slave, instilled a sense of pride and independence in her.
This week on “The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation” you’ll learn about Rosa Parks and the Rosa Parks Bus. Want to learn more about Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement? Take a look below.
Jeanne Theoharis’ definitive political biography of Rosa Parks sets out to correct the popular myth of Rosa Parks as the quiet, tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat on Montgomery City Lines Bus #2857. Through extensive and intricate research, Theoharis asserts that Rosa Parks spent years working courageously for civil rights. She prepared herself with an assured readiness, which she could rely on when an opportunity occurred as it did on the bus on December 1, 1955.
As Theoharis points out, Parks started her political activist career at an early age, decades before she refused to give up her bus seat. Parks and husband Raymond, who met in 1931, shared a passion for taking action against segregation laws. She joined the Montgomery NAACP in 1943 as a volunteer advocate organizing black youth groups and trying to bring justice for young black women raped by white men. A few years later, she became the secretary of the NAACP — working with E.D. Nixon, president of the Montgomery NAACP chapter — to advocate for anti-lynching laws and overcoming the formidable process of registering black people to vote.
Rosa Parks also was a strong advocate for integrating whites and blacks. In 1947, the Freedom Train, carrying historic copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and the original Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation, “was scheduled to stop in Montgomery and Parks published a report objecting to Montgomery’s all-white train committee,” according to Theoharis. The national requirement that the exhibit be racially integrated was highly controversial in Montgomery, Birmingham and Memphis. Parks and her colleagues were instrumental in bringing the Freedom Train to Montgomery as they pressured city officials to ensure all children would actually enter on a first-come, first-served basis. As the Montgomery NAACP secretary, she created several campaigns for racial integration, wrote numerous press releases countering white arguments for segregation and continued to mount successive and tireless campaigns for black voter registration.
Theoharis brings us through six decades of Parks’ courageous life as a political activist, which had serious consequences for her and her family. Great economic stress, constant harassment and people threatening physical harm and even death were now part of her life. Despite the private toll, Parks continued to publicly urge perseverance for the civil rights movement, never retiring as an advocate for racial justice.
Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks is an exceptional scholarly work that offers a great story for its readers and should be part of every library and classroom. This work provides a new awareness of the importance of an American icon whose real history is better and far more relevant to move our society forward than the myth of a tired seamstress.
Review by Christian W. Øverland, Executive Vice President of The Henry Ford.
In honor of Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday and our Day of Courage celebration earlier this year, the education team at The Henry Ford developed a special educational activity book for children that focuses on social innovation and how the civil rights pioneer took a stand against injustice. Writing and designing the book “Be an Innovator Like…Rosa Parks,” gave us an opportunity to learn more about Rosa Parks and extend the legacy she left on our country.
To prepare ourselves for writing the book, we read about Rosa’s family, especially her grandfather, who instilled a sense of pride in her, and her husband Raymond, who encouraged her to fight for equality. We researched the many other individuals who challenged segregations laws on buses in the South. And we looked into other social innovators who were inspired by Rosa Parks, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. When we finally sat down to write, we knew we wanted to make Rosa Parks relatable to young students through this book, to show them that they can do extraordinary things, too.
In order for the book to stand out from other activity books on the shelf we designed it to be shaped like the real Rosa Parks bus on display inside Henry Ford Museum. The book, which is geared towards children in grades K-5, uses the “learning by doing” strategy and is broken down into fun activities that teach children milestone historic events in the life of Rosa Parks, and other past and present social innovators. The book includes colorful photographs from our collections, vocabulary building and mapping activities, and creative visualization and writing opportunities.
This activity book is the second in a series of innovation-themed children’s activity books. The first book in the series on Henry Ford became extremely popular last year among teachers and students nationwide.
“Rosa Parks’ story is such an inspiration for children,” said Paula Gangopadhyay, Chief Learning Officer for The Henry Ford. “The book is filled with critical information around Rosa Parks’ life and the iconic bus, but it is packaged in a kid-friendly format which will make learning fun.”
The book is aligned to Michigan and National Curriculum Standards, including the Common Core, and can be used in the classroom or at home. We know that social innovation is a complex topic for children, but it was our hope to inspire young readers to think about how they can make a difference in their own life, and how that difference could someday change the world.
You can purchase the book in any of the museum stores or through our online gift shop. We’re also offering a special discount if you buy 20 or more books together, which is great for teachers and youth service providers!