Changing the Wind: Notes toward a Demosprudence of Law and Social Movements

By Guinier, Lani; Torres, Gerald | The Yale Law Journal, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Changing the Wind: Notes toward a Demosprudence of Law and Social Movements


Guinier, Lani, Torres, Gerald, The Yale Law Journal


II. THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT

On the night of December 5, 1955, Dr. King put succinctly the relationship between law on the books and law as experienced. Well before King became a "national" leader, he delivered his very first speech as head of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Earlier that day, Rosa Parks had been convicted of disorderly conduct for refusing to acquiesce to the Jim Crow laws of the segregated bus system. Her arrest and trial triggered plans for a one-day boycott of Montgomery buses. At the mass meeting celebrating the first day of the bus boycott, King asserted: "We are here because of our love for democracy, because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth." (120) Drawing on the authority of the Supreme Court, he linked the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which had come down a year earlier, to the authority of God, Jesus, and the very nature of justice itself. Declaring that he had "legal authority behind [him]," King linked his new community's "right to protest for right" to a biblical story of divine justice. (121) King challenged local legal authority with the national commands of the highest court. But he joined that challenge to the even higher authority of the religious faith that his listeners shared.

The mass meetings were crucial. Like the one on December 5, 1955, at which King connected two important sources of justice, God and the Court, the meetings continued to play a critical role throughout the boycott's thirteen months. (122) For black Montgomery citizens, the mass protest action was a constant cycle of personal sacrifice, weariness, and collective "rousement" from mass meetings. (123) Mass meetings ultimately became the movement's works of art. At those meetings, religious and legal idioms were fused and the collective will of the bus boys and the maids, the porters, and the seamstresses, was galvanized on a nightly basis. (124) Middle class and poor blacks, at the local and national level, strategically mobilized their collective resources. As a result, fifty thousand black people in a single city refused to ride the segregated buses for more than a year. (125)

At the time, black Montgomery attorney Fred Gray was bright, aggressive, and a year out of law school. Gray, who moonlighted on weekends as a preacher, wanted to challenge the city's segregation laws even before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to obey them on a city bus. Yet Gray waited to file his case until the MIA leadership voted to grant him that authority. More significant than Gray's apparent self-restraint (126) were the institutional restraints imposed on him by the MIA, whose executive board and strategy committee rendered Gray unable to dominate their broader extra-legal strategies. (127) For example, although they relied on stories of law and rights talk to both inspire and legitimize the boycott, King and the MIA initially resisted actually litigating (except for Parks's catalytic appeal). (128) Thus, Gray entered an organizing landscape with wide strategic possibilities that the MIA surveyed with Gray's input, but not his control. Ultimately, the leadership authorized Gray to prepare the "ultimate weapon" of a federal lawsuit against bus segregation. (129) Thanks to Gray's advance behind-the-scenes preparation, he was able to file the suit relatively quickly. (130)

Gray supported rather than led the boycott organized by the MIA, whose key resources grew out of grassroots mobilization and mass action. (131) Moreover, the deliberately non-bureaucratic structure of the MIA, an "organization of organizations," extended to, and endured because of, the MIA's grassroots fundraising. (132) The MIA's carpool and other capital-dependent activities were initially supported by collections at the mass meetings, (133) which literally "refueled" the boycott. Although money soon flowed from outside, these funds were raised in large part by black churches, organizations (including NAACP branches), and individuals, as well as some northern white individuals and organizations. …

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