Burks, Mary Fair 192(?)–1991
Mary Fair Burks 192(?)–1991
Educator, civil rights activist
The Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 is regarded as the event that launched the civil rights movement in America. The 381-day boycott certainly was the first, longest, and most widely publicized protest to date, and attracted the world’s attention to America’s racial ills. Rosa Parks went down in history as the “mother” of the boycott, as she was the first woman to publicly challenge the treatment of blacks on buses. But Mary Fair Burks, as a co-founder of the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, Alabama (WPC), helped organize and maintain the historic protest. First only targeting conditions for black on buses, it was only later that the goals of the boycott grew to include integration. Burks, an English professor, grew up in a radically segregated world, but worked to see the end of segregation long before her death in 1991.
Burks was born in the 1920s and grew up in Montgomery in the 1930s, bucking the Jim Crow system of segregation even as a child. She used white-only elevators, restrooms, and other facilities in what she later called “my own private guerilla warfare,” according to the King Chronologies Online. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Alabama State College at age 18. She returned to Montgomery after earning her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. Burks taught English at the Alabama State Laboratory High School and then taught at the college. She married the high school principal and became head of the Alabama State College English department. She later earned her doctorate from Columbia University.
In 1946 Burks founded the WPC with JoAnn Robinson to work at fixing some of the problems in Montgomery’s black community. The grass-roots organization was made up of college women and those who lived in the area. “The WPC was formed for the purpose of inspiring Negroes to live above mediocrity, to elevate their thinking, to fight juvenile and adult delinquency, to register and vote, and in general to improve their status as a group,” JoAnn Robinson wrote in her memoir, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It. “We were woman power, organized to cope with any injustice, no matter what, against the darker sect.” Burks was the group’s first president, and lead the women “who would work together as leaders and followers, giving and taking suggestions, and who would never reveal the secrets of the WPC,” Robinson wrote. “Dr. Burks, a profound scholar, highly intelligent and fearless, was a native Alabaman who had suffered from the segregated rules, the hypocrisy of race separation. … Dr. Burks knew that one day, when human beings had taken all they could digest, the fight would begin. Thus her thoughts gave birth to the WPC…” Burks handed over presidency of the group to Robinson in 1950, but remained as involved as ever.
“The WPC was the largest, best organized, and most assertive black civic organization in the Alabama capital,” according to Stewart Burns, editor of Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Burks and Robinson became involved with the mayor’s office and the Montgomery City Commission. They informed the commissioners about their goals of working with the city to resolve nuisance issues when blacks were concerned.
Born c. 1920s, in Montgomery, AL; died on July 21, 1991, in Salisbury, MD. Education: Alabama State College, BA, English literature; University of Michigan, MA, English literature; Columbia University, doctorate in education; postgraduate study at Harvard University, Oxford University, the Sorbonne, among others.
Career: Alabama State Laboratory High School, English teacher; Alabama State College, head of English department, late 1940s-60; helped launch the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-56; University of Maryland, professor of literature, 1960-86.
Memberships: Co-founder and member, Women’s Political Council of Montgomery, 1946-1960.
The mayor’s office and commission were sincere in working with the WPC, and the group’s members were invited to attend city meetings that involved minority groups. The WPC worked hard to find solutions to the city’s troubles that were in the interest of the black community. The city of Montgomery and the WPC maintained a productive working relationship for several years. That partnership effectively ended when the struggle for integration on buses began.
In the segregated South, public buses were open to blacks, but seating was limited and restricted to a small area at the back of the bus, while whites sat in the front. The black section could be full to overflowing, but no African-American rider could occupy a white seat, even if they were all empty. On December 1, 1955, a rider named Rosa Parks sat in a white seat and refused to move. She was arrested and fined, and her seemingly simple actions sparked a movement.
The WPC had long considered the notion of a boycott against the Montgomery bus system. There were frequent reports of blacks being mistreated and sometimes beaten by white drivers. These complaints had increased between 1954 and 1955. The Rosa Parks incident caused enough outrage to give fuel to their idea. Burks and her group wasted no time in organizing the boycott. Word spread quickly, and ministers of every black church in Montgomery announced the boycott in church so that there was almost complete compliance on the morning of Monday, December 5, 1955. For the next 381 days, blacks walked dozens of miles every day to work, church, school, and to shop and socialize. They walked in the sweltering summer heat and the cold winter days. News spread throughout the globe and black Montgomery churches began receiving donations from all over the world.
The public goals of the Montgomery bus boycott were “better seating arrangements” for blacks, which was seen as a difficult enough task, and to get some black drivers behind the wheel. Desegregation on buses seemed an implausible goal, but the women of the WPC secretly hoped to achieve it. In fact, they were bent on achieving it, but knew that saying so publicly would only elevate the tension and violence of the struggle. Desegregation was, however, the ultimate result of the boycott. On June 5, 1955, a three-judge federal court ruled segregation on buses violated the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that guarantees equal government treatment of all citizens. Blacks and whites gradually began using the buses again. Men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Edgar D. Nixon, Rufus Lewis, and others were credited for the achievements of the boycott, but it was Burks and her group who did the daily work of maintaining and organizing thousands of blacks through a long and difficult protest. Burks was “very vocal and articulate, especially in committee meetings,” according to Montgomery Improvement Association secretary Erna Dungee in Daybreak of Freedom. Dungee recalled that in the meetings, the women “let the men have the ideas and carry the ball. [The women] were kind of like the power behind the throne.”
The boycott was a triumphant victory for civil rights, but the aftermath was bitter for Burks and the other organizers. After some time had passed, between 1958 and 1960, news spread that some of the teachers at Alabama State College, who had been supporters of the boycott, were being investigated by a special state committee. The first professor investigated was tried in absentia, without a hearing, and was not only terminated from his position at the college, but also ordered by state officials to leave the city of Montgomery. As political pressures grew, Burks resigned from her position and took a job teaching literature at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. She remained a professor there until her retirement in 1986. She also wrote numerous articles on various contemporary African-American writers. Throughout her career, Burks received many awards and honors. Burks died on July 21, 1991, in Salisbury, Maryland. Her only child, Nathaniel W. Burks, is a doctor in San Diego, California.
Burns, Stewart, editor, Daybreak of Freedom: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Levanthal, Willy S., editor, The Children Coming On … A Retrospective of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Black Belt Press, 1998.
Robinson, JoAnn, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, University of Tennessee Press, 1987.
“Mary Fair Burks,” King Chronologies, www.stanford.edu/group/King/about_king/details/460100.htm (April 8, 2003).
“The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” NewSouth Books, www.newsouthbooks.com/resources/mia/boycott.htm (April 8, 2003).
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