Closing Ranks: Montgomery Jews and Civil Rights, 1954–1960
The arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955 provided the spark which ignited the long smouldering resentments of black Montgomerians. For 381 days they waged a boycott of the city bus lines, frustrating the opposition of white authorities and financially crippling the local transit company. More profoundly it resulted in a Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on public transportation. Equally momentous was the emergence of the man who would serve as the spiritual figurehead of the civil rights movement: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the wake of the Montgomery bus boycott, one national black newspaper acclaimed King as “Alabama's Modern Moses.” Since the darkest days of slavery African-Americans had sought spiritual salvation by comparing their own condition to that of God's Chosen People, the Israelites of the Old Testament. Throughout their years of enslavement they prayed for the Moses who would deliver them from their suffering unto the Promised Land. During the boycott, the black citizens of Montgomery had similarly sustained their morale by singing the old slave spirituals, raising their voices at the nightly mass meetings in rousing renditions of “Go Down Moses, Way Down in Egypt Land.” “As sure as Moses got the children of Israel across the Red Sea,” King exhorted the black community, “we can stick together and win.” Others too drew the analogy between the historical experience of Jews and the contemporary predicament of African-Americans. Looking back on the boycott, white liberal activist Virginia Durr evoked the spectre of Nazi Germany in describing the strength of racist opposition.