The Thunder of Angels

Oct 24, 2005

On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks took her seat on bus number 2857. When a white passenger boarded, Mrs. Parks was ordered to give up her seat, refused, and was arrested. In this book, the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted 381 days is fully fleshed out, using extensive research.

The Thunder of Angels

Donnie Williams of Montgomery, Alabama, inherited from his father-in-law the bus on which Rosa Parks made history. On the evening of December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks got off work at Montgomery Fair department store, where she was a seamstress, and, just plain tired out, took her seat on bus number 2857. When a white passenger boarded, Mrs. Parks was ordered to give up her seat, refused, and was arrested.

In this volume, however, the boycott story is fully fleshed out, using the extensive research conducted by Donnie Williams over a period of many years, dozens of interviews and a thorough sifting of the Alabama newspapers of the era. Williams, a Montgomery butcher, not a writer, enlisted the help of Wayne Greenhaw, a veteran journalist, the winner of the Clarence Cason Award for Distinguished Non-Fiction, and author of a history of Montgomery, to help him, I believe extensively, with the writing.

This book, The Thunder of Angels, covers in detail the boycott that lasted for 381 days, from December 5, 1955 until February of 1957. This is one of the many recent books, including Diane McWhorter?s treatment of Birmingham in Carry Me Home, that fills in another piece of the historical puzzle.

Williams and Greenhaw tell a good story; some parts of it will be familiar to the reader, some not.

To begin with, the Jim Crow practice of segregating bus riders was not only humiliating, insulting, and dehumanizing. It was sometimes murderous. Early in this book we are told of Thomas Edward Brooks, an Army enlisted man in uniform, who boarded a Montgomery city bus, paid his dime, and was walking down the empty aisle to the colored section. That was not enough for the driver. He insisted that Brooks follow the rules to the letter, which meant leaving the bus by the front door, walking to the rear door, and re-entering the bus. When Brooks refused, the driver summoned a policeman who clubbed Brooks, then, when Brooks attempted to flee, shot him in the back, killing him instantly.

The killing was officially declared ?unavoidable.? As grotesque as this story is, it is not singular. Two more black men were killed in similar circumstances over the next three years. Only one of the killings ever made it to the papers. Nothing was done about any of the killings. Williams and Greenhaw make clear that, in defense of segregation, the bus drivers and police were more than rude: they were homicidal.

History has recorded that the young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was elected President of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and King indeed deserves full credit for his eloquence, his organizational skills, and his courage. From Montgomery, he quite rightly became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

Others have also received a fair amount of credit, including Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, and the lawyer Clifford Durr and his wife, Virginia, surely two of the bravest and most important Alabamians who ever lived. In this volume, however, the spotlight justly lingers on E. D. Nixon, a Pullman Porter, an older man, born in 1899, who, in fact, ?organized the NAACP in Alabama when Martin Luther King, Jr., was still a child.? Nixon was uneducated and rough in his speech, but he learned from A. Philip Randolph and other labor leaders how to organize and bring pressure to bear. Like many others in the Movement, he was courageous enough to endure having his home bombed and his life threatened and just keep moving on.

The Montgomery bus boycott was nonviolent and effective. Although the KKK threw dynamite and city officials seethed and brought spurious lawsuits, they could not force people onto the buses. The boycotters, having been treated abominably, cursed at, and shot, stayed with the boycott until they did, in fact, overcome.