9. Rosa Parks and the Law
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9 Rosa Parks and the Law Racial segregation first came to pub­ lic transportation in Montgomery, Ala­ bama,in the summer of 1900.There had been a racial incident on a streetcar in Augusta, Georgia, in May of that year. A black man had killed a prominent young white man there in the course of an altercation over a seat. As a result, a white mob had lynched the black man, and the Augusta City Council had adopted an ordinance in June requiring the racial segregation of trolley seating.1 In the meantime, within days of the Augusta incident, Montgomery alderman John D. Finley, an attorney, had responded to it by introducing a proposed ordinance requiring the trolley lines in his own city to reserve half the seats in each streetcar for whites and half for blacks. Montgomery’s three trolley lines denounced this proposal as simply unworkable , and as a result of their opposition, the city council rejected Finley ’s ordinance by a vote of five in favor to six against. The Montgomery Advertiser was an enthusiastic proponent of Finley’s idea, however, arguing that it would prevent violent encounters such as the one in Augusta,and under the Advertiser’s editorial prodding,Finley revised the ordinance and reintroduced it. His new proposal eliminated the racial reservation of seats. Instead it required streetcar conductors to assign all passengers to seats in such a way as to separate the races.It made the refusal of a passenger to take the seat the conductor assigned a misdemeanor. But it provided that no passenger could be moved from his seat unless there was a vacant seat in the area for his race to which he could have moved. These changes satisfied the trolley companies. The council therefore adopted the revised Finley ordinance unanimously on August 6, and Mayor Edwin B. Joseph, an insurance agent, signed it into law on August 10. August 12 was a Sunday, and essentially every black clergyman in Montgomery used his sermon that morning to denounce the new ordinance.The result was that on Monday, August 13, black trolley passengers began a boycott of the streetcars. By August 16 the trolley lines reported their receipts down by 60 percent, and on Sep­ tem­ ber 20 they said that receipts were down by a fourth during the boycott’s first month. The boycott continued Rosa Parks and the Law / 187 through­ out 1901 and into 1902. By that time, though, the trolley lines apparently had passed quiet instructions to their conductors to turn a blind eye to violations of the ordinance. Under these circumstances, blacks slowly drifted back to riding, and the boycott gradually ended.2 The trolley companies’ lack of enforcement of the new law did not go unnoticed by some whites, however. In late 1905, a firm headquartered in Lynchburg, Virginia, gained control of all three of Montgomery’s trolley lines and petitioned the city for an exclusive franchise.The discussions over the franchise revived the question of the segregation ordinance. In return for the grant of the franchise in April 1906, the trolley company promised , among other things, to begin enforcing segregation more vigorously. By August, however, there had been no noticeable changes, and Alderman John F. Jones, a clerk in the Montgomery Fair department store, therefore introduced a new segregation ordinance requiring completely separate streetcars for blacks and whites. In Oc­ to­ ber, over the trolley company’s strenuous protests, the council adopted Jones’s proposal. Mayor William M. Teague, a wholesale hardware merchant, vetoed the ordinance, echoing the trolley company in saying that it imposed an excessive financial burden on the company. But the council overrode Mayor Teague’s veto with only one dissent. The company thereupon sent a formal letter to the mayor announcing that it could not and would not comply with the new ordinance’s terms.The mayor, determined to embarrass his council opponents, then ordered police to arrest any trolley employee who defied the new plan. It went into effect on the morning of No­ vem­ ber 23, and by noon fifty-­ four arrests had been made, the operation of the trolley sys­ tem had come to a complete halt, and the city was in an uproar. But that afternoon, City Court judge Anthony D. Sayre granted the company a temporary injunction against the further enforcement of the Jones ordinance, and trolley operations resumed. These events brought the company’s Lynchburg president, R. D. Apperson , and its general counsel, John...


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Subject Headings

  • Reconstruction (U.S. history, 1865-1877).
  • Civil rights -- United States -- History.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1865-1951.
  • Southern States -- History -- 1951-.
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