Attic discovery tells different side of Montgomery Bus Boycott story
MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - In Alabama, you don't have to look any further than state history to understand the power of a protest. More than 60 years ago hundreds of black Montgomery residents nearly crippled the city through a concerted effort that became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
For more than a year, black residents refused to ride the buses, withholding their ridership - and money - until the day they were given equal treatment on the city's public transportation lines. Rain or shine, they skipped the bus and made their voices heard to devastating effect.
Stories of the boycott have been recounted numerous times and recorded in the history books. But there are books no one has ever been able to peer into. No one researching history about that event has ever been able to find the original financial ledgers of the bus company to see the brutally efficient effects of the boycott.
But amazingly, the information survived through the years, neatly tucked away in an attic, almost forgotten until decades later when a little girl needed something to talk about for a school project in another state.
It was 1955. The bus boycott was taking hold in Alabama's capital city. Black residents of Montgomery made the decision to walk to their destination instead of taking any rides by city bus. It was a courageous, year-long show of solidarity, and the powerful movement nearly bankrupted the bus company at the center of the controversy.
"Oh, they lost a lot of money..." explained Diane Carmichael. While born several years after the boycott, Carmichael is familiar with its impact in a way few others can claim. She's had numerous conversations over the years with her father about her grandfather, James H. Bagley.
Now Bagley's name may not evoke the type of familiar memories history gave to others like Rosa Parks, but he was right at the center of the tug-of-war. While Parks stepped onto a bus and rode it into history, Bagley managed the bus company her actions would soon put in a major financial bind.
If you dealt with the Montgomery City Lines bus company in 1955, you dealt with James H. Bagley, long experienced with Montgomery transportation since the days of the streetcar.
"Well, it's kind of a crazy story," Carmichael admits about how she learned of the existence of her grandfather's meticulous records.
Now a resident of Atlanta, she recalls a 2008 school project in which her daughter had to do a presentation for her fourth-grade class. While talking to her own parents about the project, Carmichael's mother said, "Well, you know we've got all these documents up in the attic in an old cedar chest where people wrote letters to Pop from all over the country."
"I was pretty blown away with what was up there..." Carmichael admitted. The historic documents she was flipping through revealed for the first time the financial toll of the boycott.
From 1955 to 1956, Bagley's ledger shows the bus company's earnings took a nosedive, dropping a staggering 69 percent. Montgomery City Lines was in major trouble, forced to cut routes and furlough drivers.
It's information that gives Alabama Department of Archives and History archivist Haley Aaron chills. Until now, historians have only been able to present the story of the boycott from the perspectives of the boycotters and the Montgomery Improvement Association, which estimated bus ridership at 75 percent African-American.
"We've speculated a lot about what those total losses looked like," Aaron said, "but only through these financial records can you see in those hard numbers what that loss really looked like."
Even before the bus boycott, there were signs that ridership was dropping. More people were buying cars and driving instead of riding the bus, and with more black residents feeling mistreated by the bus company, the boycott was quietly being organized.
Among the Bagley documents, a never-before-seen letter that may be one of the first indicators that black residents were fed up and ready to take action. It was sent to Montgomery Mayor William Gayle in Feb. 1954, nearly two years before the bus boycott. The letter listed demands and the dissatisfaction black riders were having with the bus company.
Some of the signatures on the Gayle letter belong to notable African-American figures in Montgomery history including Jo Ann Robinson, E.D Nixon, and Rufus Lewis, some of the very people who would later organize the bus boycott.
"I think it really shows the endurance of the boycott," Aaron said, "and the commitment those boycotters had," speaking of the documents.
Several months after the Gayle letter was sent, Parks took her seat and what was supposed to be the quiet ride home after a long day at work ended with her arrest, the spark that set off a nationwide controversy and a major source of stress for Bagley.
In the wake of the boycott, hundreds of letters from all over the country began pouring into Bagley's office, as well as to the mayor. Among around 100 letters Bagley saved, some handwritten, others typed, were supporters frustrated with what was happening in the South. Some urged Bagley to settle the protest while others weren't so supportive.
As the boycott continued, Aaron says some segregation supporters sent money to help the struggling company. Some sent a dime, notable for the cost of one bus ticket, while others sent as much as $40.
"Please, please don't let the n------ have their way about riding your cars," one person from North Carolina wrote. "If you give into them the whole South will go black. I believe if you hold out they will all eventually coming crawling back to the buses."
"When you read the letters it makes you sad more than anything," Carmichael said. "There was a lot of fear going on..."
"I learned a lot about what my grandfather was going through at the time," Carmichael went on. There were fears and anxiety, even bomb threats on the Bagley home.
Her grandfather suffered two heart attacks while manager of the Montgomery City Lines company, the first on April 25, 1956, just two days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional bus segregation laws in Columbia, South Carolina.
It would be months before months before the Supreme Court would strike down segregation of Montgomery's buses, but that didn't stop lawyers for Bagley's employers to make an almost immediate move.
"When that decision was made, the bus company, the lawyers for the bus company said, 'You've got to desegregate'," Carmichael recalls of stories her father told of his dad's employer. "And so my grandfather put a notice on the bulletin board on April 24 saying the buses would be desegrated. Well, that didn't go over too well with city officials," she explained. "I can only imagine the stress he was under and he had a heart attack on April 25."
Bagley was pulled in multiple directions during the boycott. His bus drivers' union was unhappy about layoffs and furloughs, his own company's lawyers were ordering him to desegregate, the boycotters were demanding he desegregate and hire black drivers, and the mayor - Bagley's friend - was demanding he not give in to any demands.
Among the documents Bagley kept before his death are two correspondences from a black pastor in Detroit who encouraged him to find a peaceful solution.
"It encourages my grandfather and gives his opinion on what needs to be done and we just needed to get along..." Carmichael says of the letters.
Dr. Derryn Moten, a professor of history and political science at Alabama State University, calls the Bagley collection a missing link to an important story.
"It's a powerful story. It's still a powerful story, and I think that's why the story of what happened in Montgomery still resonates not only in the United States but around the world," Moten said.
For several years, the documents so central to telling part of the story about Montgomery's history, left the state with Bagley's granddaughter as she carted them home to Georgia.
"I realized it needed to be somewhere safe," she said of the documents, "and that's when we decided to donate it to the archives and history building," located in downtown Montgomery.
Now the world will know more about the boycott's impact. The letters and financial documents are part of a display that sheds new light on the past and writes a new lesson in history.
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