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February Chicago Street Journal April 2017

7

The Real organizer of the Bus Boycott

E.D. Nixon: The Forgotten Hero

Edgar Daniel Nixon (July 12, 1899 – February

25, 1987), known as E. D. Nixon, was a

civil rights leader and union organizer in Alabama

who played a crucial role in organizing

the landmark Montgomery Bus Boycott there

in 1955. The boycott highlighted the issues of

segregation in the South, was upheld for more

than a year by black residents, and nearly

brought the city-owned bus system to bankruptcy.

It ended in December 1956, after the

United States Supreme Court ruled in the

related case, Browder v. Gayle (1956), that the

local and state laws were unconstitutional, and

ordered the state to end bus segregation.

Nixon was president of the local chapter of

the National Association for the Advancement

of Colored People (NAACP), the Montgomery

Welfare League, and the Montgomery

Voters League. At the time, Nixon already led

the Montgomery branch of the Brotherhood of

Sleeping Car Porters union, known as the

Pullman Porters Union, which he had helped

organize.

Martin Luther King Jr. described Nixon as

"one of the chief voices of the Negro community

in the area of civil rights," and "a symbol

of the hopes and aspirations of the long oppressed

people of the State of Alabama." [1]

Edgar D. Nixon was born to Wesley M.

Nixon and Sue Ann Chappell Nixon. As a

child, Nixon received 16 months of formal

education, as black students were ill-served in

the segregated public school system. His

mother died when he was young, and he and

his seven siblings were reared among extended

family in Montgomery. [2] His father

was a Baptist minister. [1]

After working in a train station baggage

room, Nixon rose to become a Pullman car

porter, which was a well-respected position

with good pay. He was able to travel around

the country and worked steadily. He worked

with them until 1964. In 1928, he joined the

new union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car

Porters, helping organize its branch in Montgomery.

He also served as its president for

many years. [1]

Marriage and family

Nixon married Alease (who died in 1934),

and they had a son, E. D. Nixon, Jr. (1928–

2011). He became an actor known by the

stage name of Nick La Tour. His son Lionel

Nixon ________________________ [2]

Nixon later married Arlette Nixon, who

was with him during many of the civil rights

events. [2]

Civil rights activism

Years before the bus boycott,

Nixon had worked for voting

rights and civil rights for African

Americans in Montgomery. Like

other blacks in the state, they had

been essentially disenfranchised

since the start of the 20th century

by changes in the Alabama state

constitution and electoral laws. He

also served as an unelected advocate

for the African-American

community, helping individuals

negotiate with white office holders,

policemen, and civil servants.

Nixon joined the National Association

for the Advancement of Colored People

(NAACP), becoming president of the

Montgomery chapter and, within two years,

president of the state organization.

In 1940, Nixon organized 750 African

Americans to march to the Montgomery

County courthouse and attempt to register to

vote. They were unsuccessful, as the white

Democrats used subjective rules to exclude

them. [2]

In 1954, he was the first black to run for a

seat on the county Democratic Executive

Committee.

Challenging bus segregation

In the early 1950s, Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson,

president of the Women's Political

Council, decided to mount a court challenge

to the discriminatory seating practices on

Montgomery's municipal buses, along with a

boycott of the bus company. A Montgomery

ordinance reserved the front seats on these

buses for white passengers only, forcing African-American

riders to sit in the back. The

middle section was available to blacks unless

the bus became so crowded that white passengers

were standing; in that case, blacks were

supposed to give up their seats and stand if

necessary. Blacks constituted the majority of

riders on the city-owned bus system.

Before the activists could mount

the court challenge, they needed

someone to voluntarily violate the

bus seating law and be arrested for

it. Nixon carefully searched for a

suitable plaintiff. The final choice

was Rosa Parks, the elected secretary

of the Montgomery NAACP.

Nixon had been her boss, although

he said, "Women don't need to be

nowhere but in the kitchen." When

she asked, "Well, what about me?",

he replied, "I need a secretary and

you are a good one."\

On December 1, 1955, Parks entered a

Montgomery bus, refused to give up her seat

for a white passenger, and was arrested. After

being called about Parks' arrest, Nixon went to

bail her out of jail. After years of working

with Parks, Nixon was certain that she was the

ideal candidate to challenge the discriminatory

seating policy. Even so, Nixon had to

persuade Parks to lead the fight. After consulting

with her mother and husband, Parks accepted

the challenge.

Organizing the boycott

After Parks' arrest, Nixon called a number

of local ministers to organize support for the

boycott; the third man he called was Martin

Luther King Jr., a young minister who was

newly arrived from Atlanta, Georgia. King

said he would think about it and call back.

When King responded, he said that he would

participate in the boycott

Nixon met with Rev. Ralph David Abernathy

and Rev. E.N. French to plan the program

for the next boycott meeting. They came

up with a list of demands for the bus company,

named the new organization the Montgomery

Improvement Association (MIA), and

discussed candidates for president of the association.

Nixon recommended King to Abernathy

and French because Nixon believed that

King had not been compromised by dealing

with the local white power structure.

Nixon shared his labor and civil rights contacts

with the MIA, organizing financial and

other resources to help manage and support

the boycott. These were critical to its success.

Successful boycott

What was expected to be a short boycott

lasted 381 days. Despite fierce political opposition,

police coercion, personal threats, and

their own sacrifices, the he boycott continued.

Bus ridership plummeted, as blacks were the

majority riders in the system, and the bus

company was on the verge of financial ruin.

In late January a bomb was set off near the

home of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and on

February 1, 1956, a bomb exploded in front of

Nixon's home.

On June 5, 1956, a three-judge panel of the

US District Court ruled on Browder v. Gayle

and determined that Montgomery's segregation

law was unconstitutional, violating the

Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution.

On November 13, 1956, the US Supreme

Court upheld the lower court's ruling. On

December 17, 1956 the Supreme Court rejected

appeals by the city and state to reconsider

its decision.

At a later rally at New York City's Madison

Square Garden, Nixon talked about the symbolism

of the boycott to an audience of supporters:

“I'm from Montgomery, Alabama, a

city that's known as the Cradle of the Confederacy,

that had stood still for more than ninety

-three years until Rosa L. Parks was arrested

and thrown in jail like a common criminal....

Fifty thousand people rose up and caught hold

to the Cradle of the Confederacy and began to

rock it till the Jim Crow rockers began to reel

and the segregated slats began to fall out.”

After the boycott

Nixon's relationship with the MIA frequently

had sharp disagreements with others

in the group and competed for leadership. He

expressed resentment that King and Abernathy

had received most of the credit for the

boycott, as opposed to the local activists who

had already spent years organizing against

racism. But King admired Nixon, describing

him as "one of the chief voices of the Negro

community in the area of civil rights," and "a

symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the

long oppressed people of the State of Alabama."

Nixon resigned his post as MIA treasurer in

1957, writing a bitter letter to King complaining

that he had been treated as a child and a

"newcomer." Nixon continued to feud with

Montgomery's Black middle class community

for the next decade.

By the late 1960s, through a series of political

defeats, his leadership role in the MIA was

eliminated. After retiring from the railroad,

Nixon worked as the recreation director of a

public housing project. He continued to work

for civil rights, especially to improve housing

and education for blacks in Montgomery.

1985, Nixon received the Walter White

Award from the NAACP. In 1986, a year

before his death, Nixon’s house in Montgomery

was placed on the Alabama Register of

Landmarks and Heritage, in recognition of his

leadership in the state. [1]

Nixon died at the age of 87 in Montgomery

on February 25, 1987.

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