This blog has taken me in so many fantastic and unexpected directions! Lately, I’m delving deep into civil rights history to tell the stories of operations masterminds who worked behind the scenes to raise money, track programs, keep records, and more! This is post number 6 – see more from this series here! In this post, you’ll meet Ann Smith Pratt, the carpool dispatcher during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Without further ado…
As I search for records of accounting, fundraising, operations, systems and behind-the-scenes administration of the American Civil Rights Movement, I knew that the Montgomery Bus Boycott would yield some worthy anecdotes. After all, the boycott lasted 382 days – and throughout that time, staff and volunteer leaders coordinated intricate carpools with 32 different stops, shepherding 40,000 people to their destinations. I want to learn the story of how they orchestrated such a sophisticated system, so I’m following a breadcrumb trail, and I’m going to share some of that story with you here.
This blog post is going to be a little shabby, a little scattered – there are so many little clues and brilliant anecdotes that I am still uncovering and weaving together. So consider this a work in progress, and a taste of what’s to come!
In my last post, I wrote about the groundbreaking book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Danielle McGuire). If you decide to take one action step from this post, order yourself a copy! There was a brief aside near the end of the book about Ann Smith Pratt. If her name doesn’t ring a bell for you, you’re in good company. History hasn’t put her in the spotlight… but she deserves all of the accolades and more 🙂
According to McGuire,
At least 29 women worked as regular carpool drivers or dispatchers. Ann Smith Pratt, a hairdresser, was the chief dispatcher. She worked the ham radio directing taxi drivers and the church station wagon crew to urgent pickups at 32 designated sites.pg 120
So, this was my first “OMG WHAAAAT?” moment! I’m completely tickled that Ann Smith Pratt was originally a hairdresser. Who else could be better prepared to manage complicated logistics and schedules and details and care? Mind you, this boycott and carpooling system directly impacted 40,000 Black people in Montgomery FOR MORE THAN A YEAR. So, we’re talking about a HUGE enterprise here!!
This really hammered home one of my core beliefs – whatever skills you have are skills that are of use to social justice campaigns. It’s not only speeches and megaphones! But I digress…
So THANK YOU, Ms. Pratt, for bringing your unique gifts and a legacy that we can connect with generations later. And thank you for bringing your operational prowess to carpool system!!! It’s been said that the prior leadership of Montgomery Improvement Association’s transportation committee suffered from corruption and disorganization. Knowing that YOU were able to turn it around (not single handedly, but you were the on-the-ground person!), without credit or acclaim, makes me feel inspired and rededicated. I hope one day I’ll be able to learn more about the system itself, and the brilliant people who iterated and refined it. I bet you could give Uber a run for their money.
Some of the sources I consulted credit Rev. Benjamin J. Simms, who moonlighted as a pastor as well as a professor at Alabama State, with revitalizing the Transportation and Finance Committee:
He set up three repair shops, designated official gas stations, instituted a uniform pay scale for drivers and a system for keeping track of them, oversaw dispatchers working around the clock, and demanded meticulous record keeping.Burns, 13 in Daybreak of Freedom
Oh, what I wouldn’t give to peep at those records! It sounds like Rev. Simms had a brilliant mind for policy and procedure, but I think it was Ms. Pratt who handled the day to day. In her own words,
“It was just beautiful … beautiful blacks seeing one another perform efficiently on a big scale. There was something electrifying about our collective success. We developed a smooth working operation and as we got better and better, the city fathers downtown began to really panic. Most of us in transportation stayed charged up spiritually. It must have been G-d working… that’s where the strength must have come from.Burns, 14 in Daybreak of Freedom, originally quoted from “Benn Simms: Man Behind Buss Boycott” (Vernon Jarrett) – Chicago Tribune, 12/3/1975
Oh man, I think I could opine on spirituality and magic and systems for the rest of the night! I FEEL YOU, MS. PRATT! If y’all have thoughts, too, don’t be shy about leaving me a comment. But for now, I’m going to keep it moving…
Note to self (and readers?) Vernon Jarrett seems to be the root source of lots of these great quotes about unsung heroes – from what I know so far, he was a journalist in Chicago. Excited to dig in more (but saving that for another post…)
As if transporting the entire Black population of Montgomery to and fro work was not enough, the Transportation Committee also had to deal with all sorts of repression, from police tickets to targeted violence and beyond. I found this story particularly interesting, directly from a Montgomery Improvement Association newsletter, written by Dr. King, from September 21, 1956…
The newest and most recent of the attempts to end the protest has been effected through insurance companies, which for some strange reason have cancelled the insurance policies on all but seven of the 24 church station wagons. Whether pressure has been put upon the companies to force the cancellation, no one knows, but on Saturday Spetember 8, the automobile insurance companies annoucned that they “could nott take the risk” and cancelled the policies. Thus, seventeen station wagons have been out of operation since then. Efforts are being made to find “companies which will take the risk,” so that these carriers can resume operations.Quoted in Daybreak of Freedom, 395.
BTW, I am SO PUMPED to continue digging into Daybreak of Freedom, edited by Stewart Burns, which presents original documents from the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. I’ve only skimmed a few chapters so far, that deal most directly with operations and record keeping, but I’m certain that there is a lot more deep learning to do in those pages!
I wanted to write about this because I’m currently dealing with a bunch of governance, financial policy, insurance policy, and contract negotiation stuff in my volunteer work and let me tell you – this stuff is hard and it doesn’t come naturally! If I had to go out and get 30 cars insured for a movement (that would have multiple drivers each, that would be shlepping protesters around, etc) I wouldn’t quite know where to begin, let alone combatting the racist power structure behind the insurance firms. I’m certain that this took some fancy footwork and some expertise!
On one hand, I want to say that these type of discussions rarely make it to the light of day. For (years?) now, this has been one of my soapbox speeches. “No one is talking about this!” “Why are behind the scenes operations behind the scenes at all?!”
But, the more I work on this project, the more I see that these systems that I am so ravenous to encounter… they were hidden in plain sight the whole time! Every book I pick up, every digitized archive that I look at, even newsletters to the general membership and newspaper articles in places as seemingly remote as Columbus, Indiana (Jan 17, 1978 “Hardly a One-Man Crusade”, Editorial) are giving space to these stories. So, maybe it’s me who wasn’t paying attention. But I’m paying attention now, and I can’t wait to share more of what I’m learning.