A harmonious urban society is dependent on basic civil rights. If these rights are severely compromised, then urban progression will only drive a further divide between the have and have nots. Those above the gaze of discrimination will remain untouched while the others will be submerged in an unjust and prejudiced city.
Housing for non-white citizens in Montgomery, Alabama was severely inferior in both value and amenities. In 1950, Montgomery was heavily segregated; there were distinctive wards that housed white and non-white citizens. This led to disproportionate opportunities for African American citizens and radical inequality. Segregation was heavily supported by many white citizens and the local government. To combat this, African American citizens organized many movements in the name of civil rights. For example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, although it was responsible for great clashes with the local government, led to crucial legislative victories and desegregation. This demonstrates that every citizen has the right to their city, they have the ability to radicalize their urban environment in order to cater to the needs of their residents (Harvey, 2003). However, this is true for both white and black citizens. Although these civil rights movements were ultimately victorious, integration policies ironically caused a major influx of whites away from black areas. Throughout the 20th century the repercussions of civil rights victories on the Montgomery urban landscape led to modern forms of segregation within housing districts. The power of an individual city is severely limited in its ability to incite radical change.
Known as Dillion’s Rule, cities are seen as ‘creatures of the state’, they are at the mercy of this governing body. In some instances, the state will grant certain powers to the city; this is known as ‘home rule’ (Russel and Bostrom, 2016). Home rule varies from state to state with some states completely opting out of it. For example, in Alabama, home rule is severely limited in its state constitution (Brewer, 2007). This restriction forced the local government and authoritative body to enforce discriminatory laws and promote white supremacy in Montgomery. Particularly, the implementation of the 1896 Supreme Court ruling of Plessey v. Ferguson, had detrimental effects to the African American population and housing patterns in Montgomery. This ruling created the ‘separate, but equal’ doctrine which legalized discrimination in all public areas (Oyez, 2019). In Montgomery, the impact of such legislation was devastating. Alabama enacted several Jim Crow laws that reinforced the notion of legal segregation. For example, the local bus company had to comply with the law that “all passenger stations in this state (Alabama) operated by any motor transportation company shall have separate waiting rooms or space and separate ticket windows for the white and colored races” (NPS, 2018). Such laws justified the mistreatment and perception of inferiority of African Americans throughout the 20th century.
In the 1950’s African Americans made up the minority of Montgomery with the authoritative power being granted to the white majority. According to the 1950 population census, the city of Montgomery had 106,525 residents; 60.1% of the population were white and 39.9% were black. African Americans were vastly outnumbered by whites, many of whom supported the implementation and creation of discriminatory policies in Montgomery (Murphy, 2009). Segregation run rampant in virtually every area of public life. Montgomery, according to the housing census of 1950, was compromised of wards, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 23. In ward 6, located in the north of the city, there were 3,137 units available where the poorest black citizens live. 72% of this ward’s residents were non-white and more than 70% had no running water. Additionally, the average home value in 1950 was $2,353. Consequently, in ward 1 located east of ward 6 was where the poorest whites resided, it had 2,946 units, 16% were non-white and only 22% of its residents lived without running water; their average home value in 1950 was $3,683 (US Census Bureau, 1950). These statistics demonstrate the disproportionate socioeconomic conditions of poor whites and non-whites living in relatively close proximity to each other. In ward 7, catering to the white middle class opportunities and amenities were more prevalent: “Schools, churches, clubs, shopping centers, and entertainment venues were constructed to satisfy the need of the area’s new population of middle-class citizens” (Murphy, 2009). Additionally, the richest area was located in ward 23 to the west of the city, there were 2,040 units, 0.7% were non-white, and 0.6% lived without running water; the average home value was $16,675. These conditions were prompted by discriminatory policies and were supported by segregationists (US Census Bureau, 1950).
Civil rights movements in Montgomery in the 1950s sought to combat discrimination and segregation and provide better opportunities for its African American citizens. Their efforts were often met with backlash from the white majority and local governing body. Problems caused by segregation had devastating effects on African American citizens both financially and physiologically. Many African American children felt inferior in 1950 because of the volatile discriminatory policies and general mistreatment of African Americans during Jim Crow (NPS, 2015). However, organizations such as the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) sought to reverse these policies through peaceful means.
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On December 1st 1955, NAACP leader Rosa Parks refused give up her seat to a white passenger while riding the bus. She was arrested because she violated Section 10 of the Montgomery City Code requiring segregation on buses. From there, on December 5th, MIA members agreed to schedule a boycott on all Montgomery buses until they were desegregated. The boycott was supported by a carpool system comprised of around 200 private cars and 100 taxis. Black taxi drivers were charging $0.10 per passenger which was much lower than the required $0.45. To combat the carpool system, Police Chief, G. J. Ruppenthal, ordered the strict enforcement of a Montgomery’s law prohibiting more than three passengers to ride in the front seat. The boycott lasted for around ten days before a meeting was held with K.E. Totten, the Vice President of the national city line of Chicago, the parent company of Montgomery city lines, Mayor W.A. Gayle, City Commissioner Frank Parks, and Police Commissioner Clyde sellers. The meeting was held to discuss how the city would react to the boycott. On December 17, Mayor Gale implemented a board comprised of eight Montgomery citizens: four black and four white, including, MIA president, Martin Luther King Jr., to decide on whether Montgomery should implement desegregation. They did not come to a consensus that would totally implement desegregation and the MIA disagreed; the boycott continued. Police Chief Ruppenthal on January 11th delivered copies of a city ordinance enforcing segregation on buses (Carson, 1992). During this time circuit solicitor William F. Thetford ordered Police Commissioner Clyde Sellers to issue an investigative report on the African American movement in Montgomery. The report found that 85-90% of black citizens wanted to ride the bus but were afraid of violence. Despite this report Mayor Gayle encouraged whites not to give blacks rides. Mayor Gayle was greatly opposed to the boycott he explained: “We have pussyfooted around on this boycott long enough. The vast majority of whites in Montgomery don’t care whether a Negro ever rides a bus again”. This attitude was common in Montgomery African Americans were seen as second-class citizens. 11,000 people rallied in front of the city council on February 10th in support of his decision.
On April 23, Montgomery city lines issued a statement saying that they could no longer implement segregation. Police Commissioner sellers stressed that all bus drivers who did not enforce segregation would be arrested. Montgomery city lines Vice President Ben Frank issued a statement saying that the company would support all their drivers. The circuit court in Montgomery fought to end the boycott and had 115 black leaders arrested in violation of the Montgomery anti-boycott law (Carson, 1992). This issue went the Supreme Court ending in the ruling of Gayle v. Brower (1956), which stated that “the enforced segregation of negro and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States” (Oyez, 2019) and overturned the Plessey v. Ferguson decision. Additionally, in 1964 after many civil rights efforts the Civil Rights Act was passed by President Johnson that helped combat legal discrimination.
President Johnson also signed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 which drastically changed urban life in Montgomery (Murphy, 2009). Prior to 1968, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), responsible for granting housing loans, did not practice integration: “Blacks received only 2% of loans provided by the FHA between 1945 and 1960” (Lamb, 2005). The Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal. This, in turn, caused many whites who did not agree with integration to flee to the suburbs. Integration from a white perspective meant ‘disruptive protests’ and ‘lower property values’. By 1960, 16% more whites than blacks lived in the suburbs and by 1970 62% of the suburban population were white, by 1980 this number rose to 73% (Lamb, 2005). The bulk of blacks moving to the suburbs did not ensue until around the 1990’s. Blacks began to move to the suburbs in 1995 because the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development created the Central Alabama Fair Housing Center. This center facilitated a grant to Montgomery after the census data reported continued existence of segregation in the city (Murphy, 2009). In the respective wards of Montgomery, the percentage of white residents began to decrease while the black population rose throughout the latter half of the 20th century. In ward 1, where the poorest whites resided between 1950 and 2000 saw a 15% increase of non-white residence. Ward 6, holding the poorest blacks in 1950 saw a 34.3% increase of non-whites by 2000. Additionally, ward 23, holding the richest whites saw an approximately 30% increase of non-whites (Housing census, 2000).
Although this sounds like an improvement in desegregation, the increase in the black population in urban areas correlated with an increase in whites in suburban areas. The white population fled to three major counties: Autauga, Elmore, and Lowndes. In Autauga, the population rose 40% from 1970-1990, the majority being white (US Census, 1970-2000). During this time anti-discrimination laws were being heavily enforced in the inner city, whites sought to move to Autauga because the cost of living was too high for people with low income (Murphy, 2009). In Elmore, between 1970-1990 the white population rose by 57%. Lowndes county saw an 8.6% white increase between 1970-1990 and an -5.1% decrease in the black population. However, between 1970-1990 Montgomery County only saw a 12% white increase while the black population rose 43%. These statistics demonstrate the drastic move of whites away from primarily African American areas (US Census 1970-2000).
Currently, the city is partially integrated with single race wards being eliminated. The suburbs continue to show signs of segregation with the higher income people being primarily white and living in congregated areas. Housing inequality in Montgomery still is prevalent today, however, radical segregation is non-existence and illegal. African Americans utilized their rights as American citizens to congregate and insinuate legislative change. The repercussions of this legislation were unforeseen. White citizens have the right to live where they want to, however, such behavior is counterinitiative to integration and does not promotive a racially tolerant environment. That being said, African American living conditions in Montgomery have drastically improved and opportunities for success are more plentiful. Black citizens challenged the local white government and incited crucial change. Just as the black citizens utilized the ‘right to the city’ and changed Montgomery to promote the desires of African American citizens. The significant decrease of whites within the inner city of Montgomery, although not desired, demonstrates an alternative way citizens chose to change the city to cater to the desires of its white population.