GP: And now we got the Montgomery bus boycott, which I’m completely conscious of. And I become, really, the youth: go-get-me, go-bring-me, go-fetch-me, in the summer.
David: During the boycott?
GP: During the boycott. The summer of ’56. One night the family church on my daddy’s side was bombed.
David: Was bombed?
GP: In ’57, yes.
David: Who bombed it?
GP: The Kluxers.
David: The Ku Klux Klan?
GP: Yeah, along with all of the other bombings that were going on. So I was very much a part of… organically a part of the struggles, and I grew up that way.
David: The boycott, for those who don’t know, that was simply that you refused to get on the bus?
GP: Yeah, we refused to get on the bus and we walked everywhere. Now you have to understand, too, our tradition. You know, we weren’t that far removed, but we did a lot of walking anyhow; as African people we walk. The rural people, we walked as part of our own tradition.
Ard: And how did you feel when the bus boycott started? Did you…?
GP: I was just absolutely electrified. We’re gonna win this.
Ard: You felt… You already knew you were going to win?
GP: Yeah, we were gonna win this.
Ard: Why did you think you were going to…?
GP: However, coming from my granddaddy’s side, why are we fighting about sitting in the front of the bus? Why aren’t we fighting about owning the bus or the bus company? And then that’s when I began to really start doing some deep thinking. But you have to remember this struggle for human rights and dignity had been going on ever since we were first enslaved. And the fear! See, part of the vote, fighting for the vote, people were just afraid to go down to the Registrar’s office.
You have to remember the Dred Scott decision: a black person had no rights that a white person was bound to respect. You really have to understand that indelible… that fear. And then you try to avoid being insulted: you try to minimise that, so you kind of withdrew. And part of that withdrawal also cemented the black community to be reliant upon each other. And then it found its fullest magnification, organisationally, during the Montgomery bus boycott. You know what I mean ‒ this community was organised.
David: I want to ask you another question, which just picks up again on what someone else said ‒ you talked about how it’s important to have a movement. Do you think one of the things that made the movement, the black movement here, strong, was that you stuck with each other, that you cooperated with each other?
GP: Competition is the downfall of humanity. Again, I wanna be the only A. All that that’s about is competition. I’m gonna cheat… I’m gonna take from you. You know it’s that needless competition. I consider it needless, unless competition is about advancing yourself and your community. If that’s not the purpose, then it becomes horrific, dangerous, frightening.
David: And what’s better than competition?
GP: Cooperation. Cooperation makes you whole. You know, where I had my strength and innate talent. You know, born talent or spiritual-given talent. And like, in another, and you have it, then let’s cooperate and bring it together for the uplift of all of us. And that’s part of the equation.
Ard: And in the Montgomery bus boycott, is that what made you strong?
GP: Yes, knowing that my relatives who had cars would go and grocery shop for people of my community, that made me feel strong. And to know that my neighbours are walking because they had no cars, that kind of determination made me strong. Yes, we’re all interdependent. And I think that’s also very natural. Cooperation to me is natural, not competition: that’s unnatural.
And then when the bus boycott ended, and I get on the bus – ’57, I reckon it is – with my maternal grandmother who put me on the bus back in ’52, and she always went to the back. And I would always sit up front, because I thought that was the victory. And don’t let a white person be up there. Oh, my Lord! I would squirm and scoot, and all of that. Get a reaction, or, as we would say, to get a rise.
And so one time there were no white people on the bus, and I decided I’d go all the way in the back and sit with Mommy. Not all the way in the back seat, but in the back. And I finally asked Mommy, I said, ‘Mommy, why do you sit in the back of the bus? You know, we walked over a year and… Why? You know what I mean?’ And she was always very proper, and she said, ‘Gwendolyn, it was not about sitting next to white people on the bus, or even sitting in the front of the bus, it was about sitting anywhere you please.’ And I was not able to conceptualise the word, but I knew there was a word, that I later learned was called self-determination.