You Can't Get There From Here

San Jose, Calif.

JoAnn Wypijewski in "Back to the Back of the Bus" [Dec. 25] sheds much-needed light on the ongoing civil rights struggles, which lack the Bull Connors and Jim Clarks of an earlier era but produce results that discriminate with equal power. However, in her brief summary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she overlooks, as is generally the case, the role of the Women's Political Council.

Formed in 1946 by Mary Fair Burks, the WPC, under the leadership of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, printed the leaflets calling for a boycott of the buses in protest of Rosa Parks's arrest. The WPC had been planning a bus boycott for years, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. When word got around to the ministers about the boycott, they agreed to support it, albeit without publicly announcing this support to the white community. E.D. Nixon resented this hesitancy, calling them "little boys" who "lived off these poor washerwomen" and "ain't never done nothing for 'em." The ministers were properly ashamed and–with Martin Luther King Jr.–decided to publicly support the boycott. The rest, of course, is history.

Forgetting the role of citizens' groups like the WPC obscures the dynamics of social change. It was the local citizens of Montgomery, working together for years without white publicity, who created and sustained the boycott and in doing so handed the national microphone to Dr. King for the first time. Today the struggle for economic and social justice continues in Montgomery, carried on (again) by "ordinary" citizens like Carolyn Rawls and Johnnie Carr.

GABE THOMPSON

 


 

Montgomery, Ala.

To respond to JoAnn Wypijewski's jab at the Southern Poverty Law Center in "Back to the Back of the Bus": We don't remember the Montgomery Transportation Coalition asking us for money, but that's beside the point–we probably wouldn't make a grant to the group unless the request came from a coalition attorney seeking to cover case costs for a particular civil rights action. Because of our historic mission, that's the form that most of our grants for advocacy efforts take (see the Strategic Litigation Project at www.splcenter.org).

Contrary to the article, we have worked to help alleviate the transportation problems of the poor, not just in Montgomery but in Alabama as a whole. In the mid-1990s, we filed a case that attacked the state's failure to provide a transportation system for poor people (Medicaid recipients) in need of medical care. Although the court of appeals ruled against us on technical grounds, our victory in the district court caused the state to adopt a transportation program for Medicaid recipients that is still in operation.

One of our more recent lawsuits, currently before the US Supreme Court, forced the state to give its driver's license examination in foreign languages. Precisely because public transportation in Alabama is so abysmal, that case addressed an acute problem for poor and working-class immigrants. The issue is whether private parties can enforce the "discriminatory effects" regulations issued under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The enforceability of these regulations is central to the efforts of many advocacy groups across the nation that seek to prod local governments to devote more resources to public transportation.

These two cases give some indication not only of our concern about the transportation problems facing the poor but also of the unfairness of Wypijewski's suggestion that we devote all our resources to the fight against white supremacist organizations. Although the public often associates us with this fight because our courtroom successes against hate groups have captured headlines, our supporters know that our work is not limited in this way.

Last, to the claim that our new building is "assaulting the Capitol area's landscape," all we can say is, we've never tried very hard to fit in around here!

J. RICHARD COHEN, legal director
Southern Poverty Law Center

 


 

 

WYPIJEWSKI REPLIES

New York City

Thanks to Gabe Thompson for the history I didn't have the space to recount. Indeed, Jo Ann Robinson was one of the central strategists, with Fred Gray and E.D. Nixon, of the boycott and, with them, had been organizing for just such an opportunity since at least March of 1955, when 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Rosa Parks, who apart from being a seamstress was also secretary and youth director of the Montgomery NAACP, was certainly aware of this. It was also Robinson who suggested that her pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church might be a good leader for the boycott because he was young and articulate and, having not yet involved himself with community politics, would not alienate any of black Montgomery's powerful factions. Robinson herself never held any official position in the boycott organization because to do so almost certainly would have cost her her job as a professor at Alabama State College. She tells her story in The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. A terrific collection of oral histories of the people who made the boycott can be found in The Children Coming On…, edited by Willy S. Leventhal. One final historical note: 1955 marked the second time Montgomery's blacks boycotted public conveyances over segregation. The first was in 1900, when transit segregation was put into law. For that whole summer blacks refused to ride the trolleys. The white power structure was forced to make a minor compromise but would not cave for more than a half-century; almost another half-century on, the long walk to transit freedom in Montgomery continues.

Meanwhile, here's J. Richard Cohen congratulating himself and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which in thirty years of existence has addressed the transportation crisis twice and the transit racism in its own hometown not at all. While the two interventions aren't insignificant, they do nothing to alleviate the transportation problems of the majority of low-income Alabamians, nor do they strike at the root of those problems. And of course they have nothing to do with the local bus system. After my article was published, Jon Broadway of the Transportation Coalition again tried contacting various people at the center, Cohen among them, to see if there might be some way this institution with an endowment of $120 million might assist the struggle going on just outside its heavily fortified doors. Four phone messages and a number of e-mails later, he's still waiting for a reply.

Perhaps simple courtesy is also "beside the point" for the center's puffed-up crusaders, seeing as how the coalition's work doesn't fall within their "historic mission"–i.e., bringing headline-grabbing lawsuits. But because even the Federal Transit Administration's Office of Civil Rights advises activists that the fight for transit justice in America is unlikely ever to be won in court, that historic mission turns out here to be a self-serving cloak for indifference. Even at the level of rhetoric, Cohen and his colleagues, who regularly expound on civil rights issues in Op-Ed pieces or letters to the editor in the Montgomery Advertiser, have not bestirred themselves on the bus crisis.

What is the Southern Poverty Law Center doing instead? Mostly making money. I would never have suggested that it "devote[s] all [its] resources to the fight against white supremacist organizations," because the center doesn't devote all of its resources to any kind of fight. In 1999 it spent $2.4 million on litigation and $5.7 million on fundraising, meanwhile taking in more than $44 million–$27 million from fundraising, the rest from investments. A few years ago the American Institute of Philanthropy gave the SPLC an F for "excessive" reserves. On the subject of "hate groups," though, Cohen is almost comically disingenuous. No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of such groups than the center's millionaire huckster Morris Dees, who in 1999 began a begging letter, "Dear Friend, The danger presented by the Klan is greater now than at any time in the past ten years." Hate sells; poor people don't, which is why readers who go to the center's website will find only a handful of cases on such unlucrative causes as fair housing, worker safety or healthcare, many of those from the 1970s and '80s. Why the organization continues to keep "Poverty" (or even "Law") in its name can be ascribed only to nostalgia or a cynical understanding of the marketing possibilities in class guilt. It barely even handles death penalty cases anymore, and lawyers struggling in the South to save the lives of people, mostly poor, on Death Row, will never forget that it was Morris Dees who smoothed the way to a federal judgeship for Ed Carnes, author of Alabama's death penalty statute and a notorious hanging judge.

With allies like Carnes and a salary close to $300,000 putting him among the top 2 percent of Americans, Dees needn't worry about "fitting in" with the masses of Montgomery. Naturally, he'd erect a multimillion-dollar office building that's a monstrosity. "I hate it," a security guard across the street told me, as the sun's hot rays bounced off the building's vast brushed-stainless-steel-clad southern exposure and onto his face, making him sweat, roasting his skin while he stood watch for the militia nuts Dees would have his donors believe are lurking around every corner.

So, readers, rip up those pledges to the Southern Poverty Law Center. To help people in real struggle, send your money to:

§ Montgomery Transportation Coalition, c/o Jon Broadway, 600 South Court St., Room 200, Montgomery, AL 36104; (334) 244-3972. (It is pushing for expanded city bus service, a community voice in transportation decisions, spending equity and environmental justice.)

§ Rosebud Community Center, c/o Mrs. Arzula Johnson, 7376 Highway 10, East Pineapple, AL 36768; (334) 682-9703. (In the countryside where there are no taxis or buses, it provides educational and social activities and owns an old schoolbus but can't afford the insurance to operate it.)

§ Annemanie Tutoring Program, c/o Mrs. Jeanette McCall, PO Box 354, Catherine, AL 36728; (334) 225-4452. (Another rural project without benefit of public transport, it tutors students after school and conducts adult job training. Unless it can replace its van, it won't be able to continue past this school year. It also needs computers and building materials.)

JoANN WYPIJEWSKI