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  • Challenge and Response in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–1956
  • J. Mills Thornton III

Shortly after five o’clock on the evening of December 1, 1955 Mrs. Raymond A. Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus of the Montgomery City Lines at Court Square in Montgomery, Alabama. She sat next to the window on the side opposite the driver, in the first row of seats in the black section of the bus. The bus driver, James F. Blake, wrenched the yellow bus into gear and headed it up Montgomery Street towards its stop in front of the Empire Theater—towards that moment when Mrs. Raymond A. Parks and James F. Blake would change the course of American history.1 In order to understand how their disagreement could have had such an effect, one must understand the context of past experiences and relationships that shaped the reactions of Montgomerians to it.

At the end of 1955 municipal politics in Montgomery was in the midst of a fundamental transformation. For [End Page 40] essentially the preceding half century Montgomery had been ruled by the Gunter Machine, headed for most of that time by William A. Gunter, Jr., the city’s mayor from 1910 to 1915 and from 1919 to his death in 1940. Mayor Gunter had come to power after more than a dozen years of bitter factional warfare between two groups of the city’s wealthy older families. Thereafter, he turned back all challenges to his rule. He could always rely upon the unwavering support of the city’s morning newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser, whose editor, Grover C. Hall, Sr., was one of his closest advisers, and upon the allegiance of the majority of Montgomery’s older families. In the final two decades of his life he also had the unanimous support of city employees, whom—as a result of an act which he pushed through the state legislature—he could in effect hire and fire at will.2

If there were no successful challenges to the Machine after 1919, however, the unsuccessful challenges were many. During the 1920s Gunter’s uncompromising opposition to the Ku Klux Klan made him a special object of Klan hatred. His repeated expressions of disapproval for the prohibition experiment placed the Anti-Saloon League in the ranks of his enemies, and fundamentalists condemned him for his generally lax enforcement of public morality. During the 1930s he turned the city government into a relief operation, putting hundreds on the public payroll and earning the bitter hostility of fiscal conservatives for unbalancing the city budgets. At the time of his death in 1940 he was admired by much of Montgomery’s upper class and by large numbers of the city’s unemployed. But he was also detested by many owners of small businesses and conservative citizens, strict [End Page 41] Baptists and Methodists, and others to whom his values—rooted in the easygoing tolerance and aristocratic paternalism of his planter and Episcopalian background—were anathema.

After Gunter’s death the Machine spent the next decade searching for a leader. The mayor was immediately succeeded by Cyrus B. Brown, who had long been one of Gunter’s most powerful lieutenants and was at the time president of the Montgomery County governing body, the Board of Revenue. But Brown, an elderly man, died in 1944. David Dunn, who had earlier been a political protégé of former Governor Bibb Graves, obtained Machine endorsement to succeed Brown but resigned in 1946 to go into private business.

The mayoralty then passed to City Attorney John L. Goodwyn, a cousin of Gunter’s wife, whom Gunter had appointed city attorney in 1930. Goodwyn resigned in 1951 to accept a position in the state government; this position led eventually to his being appointed to the state Supreme Court. Goodwyn was succeeded by William A. “Tacky” Gayle, a Machine stalwart who had been a member of the City Commission since 1935.3

During this decade of rapid changes in leadership the Machine grew steadily weaker. The rapidity of these changes itself contributed to the process. Another factor in the Machine’s decline was Gunter’s penchant for surrounding himself with colorless, if often...


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