Juliette Hampton Morgan was the only child of Frank and Lila Morgan of Montgomery, Alabama. Her white skin and family pedigree gave her entrance to the finest shops, restaurants, galleries and concert halls. For much of Juliette's life, her privilege meant someone else did her laundry, cooked her meals and did her yard work. She was a public school teacher, a librarian in Montgomery's Carnegie Library and later served as the director of research at the Montgomery Public Library. These were acceptable positions for a white woman in society to hold. However, some of Juliette's activities outside of work were not as acceptable. She belonged to an interracial prayer group. The group had to meet in black churches because no white church would welcome them. Many of Juliette's friends and family members did not understand her desire to belong to this group.
One seemingly insignificant thing about Juliette's life separated her further from her privileged friends: she had severe anxiety attacks. These attacks prevented her from driving her own car so, to get to work, she rode the city buses in Montgomery. On those buses, she saw white bus drivers "use the tone and manners of mule drivers in their treatment of Negro passengers." She watched them threaten and humiliate black men and women who paid the same 10-cent fare she paid. They threw their change on the floor, called them derogatory names, and left them standing at bus stops in the rain.
One morning as she rode the bus, Juliette watched a black woman pay her fare and then leave the front door of the bus to re-enter through the back door, as was the custom. As soon as the black woman stepped off, the white bus driver pulled away, leaving the woman behind even though she'd already paid her fare. Incensed, Juliette jumped up and pulled the emergency cord. She demanded the bus driver open the door and let the black woman come on board. No one on the bus, black or white, could believe what they were seeing. In the days that followed, Juliette pulled the emergency cord every time she witnessed such injustices.
News spread quickly, and bus drivers began to bait Juliette, angering her so she would get off the bus and walk the rest of the way to her destination, sometimes a mile or more. White passengers would mock her as she got off the bus. Her own mother told her she was making a fool of herself and tarnishing the family's good name.
In 1939—16 years before the famous 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott—Juliette began writing letters to local newspapers denouncing the horrible injustices she witnessed on the city buses. Her last letter was published in 1957 in the Tuscaloosa News in which she thanked the newspaper's editor for his opposition to a local council of white men that he believed—and Juliette agreed—was contributing to continued racial violence. "I had begun to wonder," she wrote, "if there were any men in the state — any white men — with any sane evaluation of our situation here in the middle of the Twentieth Century, with any good will, and most especially with any moral courage to express it."
During her years of letter writing, Juliette was bombarded by obscene phone calls and hate mail. White people boycotted the library where she worked. They called her an extremist. Teenage boys taunted and humiliated her in public and in front of her staff at the library. Juliette's personal campaign against racism and injustice caused her to become estranged from friends, colleagues, neighbors and even her own mother.
Powerful white men and women in Montgomery demanded that Juliette be fired. The burned their library cards and boycotted the library. The library superintendent and trustees refused. The mayor withheld municipal funding to the library, in an effort to force the library to cut Juliette's position. On July 15, 1957, a cross was burned on her lawn. Juliette resigned from the library the next day and committed suicide that night, leaving a note that read simply, "I am not going to cause anymore trouble to anybody."
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, remembered Juliette and gave her credit for first comparing the Montgomery bus boycott to Gandhi's work in India. In 2005, Juliette Hampton Morgan was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame. Later that year, the Montgomery City Council voted to rename the main public library after her. Juliette's actions and her words are as relevant today as they were when she was alive: "There are thousands who want to change our old order, but they are afraid of speaking out. I believe that it is our biggest problem—overcoming the fear of decent white people."
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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.
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