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.
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.