Union leader and civil rights advocate E. D. Nixon helped launch the Montgomery bus boycott, the event that propelled Martin Luther King, Jr., into the national spotlight. Described by King as “one of the chief voices of the Negro community in the area of civil rights,” and “a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the long oppressed people of the State of Alabama,” Nixon worked behind the scenes to launch the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and to then organize and sustain the boycott (King, 39).
The son of a Baptist minister and a maid-cook, Nixon was born on 12 July 1899, in Lowndes County, Alabama. Nixon received only 16 months of formal education, but after working his way up from a job in the train station baggage room, he became a Pullman car porter, a job he held until 1964. In 1928 he joined A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters Union, and later helped form its Montgomery branch, acting as its president for many years. Nixon later said of Randolph’s impact on him: “Nobody in all my years influenced me or made me feel like A. Philip Randolph did” (Viorst, 22).
On 1 December 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Nixon, former head of the Montgomery National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), felt her arrest was the perfect case to challenge Montgomery’s segregated bus system. Nixon recalled: “When Rosa Parks was arrested, I thought ‘this is it!’ ’Cause she’s morally clean, she’s reliable, nobody had nothing on her, she had the courage of her convictions” (Millner, “Interview; E. D. Nixon,” 546). Nixon then worked with the Women’s Political Council to convince black residents to support the boycott.
Together with Clifford Durr, a white attorney, Nixon bailed Parks out of jail and quickly began to mobilize Montgomery’s black community. Impressed by King’s address to the local NAACP chapter several months earlier, Nixon asked him to host a bus-boycott planning meeting at his church on 2 December. After the successful one-day boycott on 5 December, Montgomery’s black leaders met again. King was elected to lead the boycott as president of the newly created MIA, and Nixon was elected treasurer. When some participants suggested forming a secret organization, Nixon chastised them, “Am I to tell our people that you are cowards?” (Papers 3:4n).
Nixon supplied the MIA with contacts for various labor and civil rights organizations, which provided both financial and political support for the boycott. In 1957 tensions between King and Nixon developed over leadership and decision making in the MIA. Nixon resigned his post as MIA treasurer in 1957, citing resentment at “being treated as a newcomer” (Papers 4:217). However, Nixon maintained respect for King. Referring to King’s handling of his arrest in Montgomery on 3 September 1958, Nixon applauded King, “Because of your courage in face of known danger I want to commend you for your stand for the people of color all over the world, and [especially] the people in Montgomery. Your action took the fear out of the Negroes and made the white man see himself as he is” (Papers 4:492).
Until his death at the age of 87, Nixon continued to work for civil rights, focusing his later years on improving conditions at housing projects and organizing programs for African American children. Nixon received the Walter White Award from the NAACP in 1985, and in 1986, a year before his death, Nixon’s home in Montgomery was placed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
Introduction, in Papers 3:4.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
Steven M. Millner, “Interview; E. D. Nixon,” in The Walking City, ed. Garrow, 1989.
Nixon to King, 3 June 1957, in Papers 4:217–218.
Nixon to King, 9 September 1958, in Papers 4:492.
Raines, My Soul Is Rested, 1983.
Viorst, Fire in the Streets, 1979.