The Negroes of Montgomery, Alabama, have started something which will not be stopped by the conviction of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the charge of organizing an illegal boycott. The bus boycott is not halted. Trials of 89 other defendants were suspended pending appeal of the King case, and that may take several years to reach a final adjudication.
It is difficult to see how that process can do anything but hurt the segregationists’ cause. For even eventual upholding of this conviction – which is by no means certain – would kill the idea of nonviolent use of economic power. Meanwhile at every step there would probably be a continuance of bad publicity for the methods adopted to enforce white supremacy. Also, unhappily, there may be a spreading use and abuse of boycotts, damaging to both races and to the South as a whole.
The Montgomery boycott developed as a protest by most of the city’s 50,000 Negroes against discrimination on the busses. In the King trial there was abundant testimony intended to show justification – which might be a defense under the law. It left little doubt that treatment of the Negroes on busses fulfilled but half of the “separate but equal” standard.
Southerners honestly convinced that the two races will do better if kept separate – at least in certain associations – will find their case damaged by the ugly evidence of insult and humiliation in this record. Senator Eastland recently declared segregation was not based on any sense of racial superiority. But as practiced it is often hard to disengage from manifestations of “white supremacy” which are not pretty even when as unconscious as the discrimination practice in the North.
Negroes have by no means been the only ones to employ economic weapons in the segregation struggle. Whites months ago began firing or denying credit to Negroes who signed petitions for desegregated schools. Whites have set in motion some of the most harmful rumor-bred boycotts of business firms accused – usually with no truth – of aiding the NAACP. Whites, indeed, appear to have suffered most, being also on the receiving end of boycotts by Negroes for supporting the White Citizens Councils.
It is clear that the economic weapons are dangerous ones, and southern leaders are deeply concerned by the harm they are doing. One remedy is to expose the false reports which start many of them. But a more fundamental answer is also being sought in steps to cultivate moderation and positive improvements in race relations. Leaders in Montgomery would be well advised to follow this course.
So far the Negroes there have had all the best of it – especially in national and world opinion. They have asked for a rule which obtains on busses in other southern cities like Memphis. This still aims at segregation, but with a first-come-first-serve rule. Whites are seated in front, Negroes in the back, but either race may overflow its own area if there are seats elsewhere. Whites at present are in the poor position of trying to compel Negroes to ride busses. Also to stand even though there may be empty seats. Moreover, some of the Negro leaders appear to understand that the spirit in which economic weapons are used is vital. They have emphasized calmness and nonviolence. Mr. King pleaded on one occasion, ‘We must use the weapon of love. We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us,’ Economic power, if exercised in that spirit, will not be easily stopped.