Juliette Hampton Morgan: A White Woman Who Understood

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This lesson is part of the Juliette Hampton Morgan series.

Healthy racial identity development among older white youth is a bit more complex. Often, white students must come to understand that society attaches meaning to their whiteness and that they have a choice about how to be white in a multicultural society.

The American Civil Rights Movement was a movement of the people. Black and white, male and female, Jew and Christian, rich and poor -- ordinary people who came together across differences to advance this nation's core value of equality and demand an end to the discrimination against African Americans.

Each year at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, we welcome thousands of visitors, many of them students on school-sponsored trips. Among our goals is ensuring today's young people understand the quest for equality and justice is far from over, and that they can -- and should -- use their voices and talents as advocates for social justice.

At a time when our nation's laws sanctioned, and in many ways mandated, white supremacy, Morgan challenged racism among her white peers. She was an ally -- someone who supports and stands up for the rights and dignity of others -- and her story provides a powerful roadmap for today's students.

The stories of women -- and the stories of anti-racist white people -- are too often absent from teachings about the Civil Rights Movement. An exploration of Morgan's life, and the principles underscoring it, will deepen participants' connections to social justice issues.

The Southern Belle
Juliette Morgan was the only child of Frank and Lila Morgan of Montgomery, Alabama. She was a seventh-generation Southerner and a third-generation Alabamian born into a white family with high status in the community. Juliette's parents counted among their friends Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tallulah Bankhead. The Morgans were welcomed into the finest shops, restaurants, galleries and concert halls. Morgan attended the best schools in Montgomery and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1934 with a degree in English literature and political science from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. She went on to get her master's degree there in 1935. Academically, she was in the top five percent of her graduating class. 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.

Juliette Morgan was a woman of wealth, status, education and connections. She was an aristocrat of Montgomery society. On the surface, she appeared to be the definitive Southern belle.

One seemingly insignificant thing about Morgan's life separated her 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.

From Socialite to Social Activist
In 1939, 16 years before the famous Montgomery Bus Boycott, Morgan began writing letters to the Montgomery Advertiser, the city's local newspaper, denouncing the horrible injustices she witnessed on the city buses. In these letters, she said segregation was un-Christian and wrong, and the citizens of Montgomery should do something about it. The response was immediate: Morgan lost her job at a local bookstore.

One morning as she rode the bus, Morgan 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, Morgan 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, Morgan pulled the emergency cord every time she witnessed such injustices.

News spread quickly, and bus drivers began to bait Morgan, 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.

Morgan refused to believe she was alone and wrote to her friend James Dombrowski, president of the Southern Conference Education Fund: "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."

Later, Morgan was hired at the Carnegie Library and her life remained uneventful for a time. She was involved in several local activist organizations. In 1946, she joined a controversial interracial women's prayer group where she met black female professionals who shared her passion for literature, music and politics.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott started in 1955, but in 1952 Morgan wrote the following in the Montgomery Advertiser: "Are people really naïve enough to believe that Negroes are happy, grateful to be pushed around and told they are inferior and ordered to 'move on back'? They may take it for a long time, but not forever." Her letters may not sound radical to modern ears, but they infuriated white segregationists.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery city bus. On December 12, 1955, Morgan wrote the following letter to the editor published in the Montgomery Advertiser: "The Negroes of Montgomery seem to have taken a lesson from Gandhi... Their own task is greater than Gandhi's however, for they have greater prejudice to overcome. One feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days... It is hard to imagine a soul so dead, a heart so hard, a vision so blinded and provincial as not to be moved with admiration at the quiet dignity, discipline and dedication with which the Negroes have conducted their boycott."

As she continued writing to the Montgomery Advertiser, Morgan began to receive threatening letters and telephone calls, and the mayor demanded the library fire her. While library officials did not fire Morgan, they did tell her she couldn't write any more letters. She promised to comply. She was silent for more than a year. Even though whites opposed to integration were bombing black homes and churches, Morgan restrained from writing letters to the Montgomery Advertiser.

On January 5, 1957, Buford Boone, editor of The Tuscaloosa News, addressed the White Citizens' Council, a group of local whites adamantly opposed to integration and supportive of segregation as a way of life in the South. Boone said the Council was to blame for the continuing violence. His address thrilled Morgan because, until that moment, she was the only local white person to publicly oppose the White Citizens' Council. She wrote to tell Boone how pleased she was:

There are so many Southerners from various walks of life that know you are right. ... They know what they call 'our Southern way of life' must inevitably change. Many of them even are eager for change, but are afraid to express themselves – so afraid to stand alone, to walk out naked as it were. Everyone who speaks as you do, who has the faith to do what he believes right in scorn of the consequences, does great good in preparing the way for a happier and more equitable future for all Americans. You help redeem Alabama's very bad behavior in the eyes of the nation and the world. I had begun to wonder 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.

Boone asked Morgan's permission to print the letter in The Tuscaloosa News. She was reluctant, of course, because she had promised her employers at the library she would not write any more letters. But she felt a personal responsibility to encourage like-minded whites to confront racism and hoped publishing her letter would cause other whites to take a stand as well. Morgan's letter was published in The Tuscaloosa News on January 14, 1957.

Morgan 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. A cross was burned in her front yard. Some of Morgan's friends said she was mentally ill and demanded she be fired. Morgan's personal campaign against racism and injustice eventually caused her to become estranged from friends, former students, colleagues, neighbors and even her own mother. Because the library superintendent and trustees still refused to fire her from her job, the mayor withheld municipal funding to the library so her job would be cut. Anxiety and depression overwhelmed her until, on July 15, 1957, she resigned her position at the library.

The next morning, Morgan's mother found her dead in her bed with an empty bottle of sleeping pills by her side. Morgan had left a note that simply said, "I am not going to cause any more trouble to anybody." The toll of feeling alone in her work against racism had been too much for her.

Taking a Stand for Justice
For six generations, the benefits of white privilege carried the Morgans to prosperity. Juliette Hampton Morgan's white skin gave her entrance to the finest places in Montgomery. For much of Morgan's life, her privilege meant someone else did her laundry, cooked her meals and did her yard work. She was raised in a time and place where shops and restaurants displayed "Whites Only" signs. Jim Crow segregation reigned, and most whites considered black deference normal and reasonable.

Morgan's many friends, both white and black, arrived at her funeral. Her black friends left, though, when they discovered segregated seating would relegate them to the old slave balcony.

Two months after Morgan's suicide, editor Buford Boone won the Pulitzer Prize for his editorials denouncing the White Citizens' Council.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. recalled Juliette Morgan's influence on him and the Civil Rights Movement in his book, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Morgan was the first to draw an analogy between the boycott and Gandhi's practice of non-violent civil disobedience.

King wrote, "About a week after the protest started, a white woman who understood and sympathized with the Negroes' efforts wrote a letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser comparing the bus protest with the Gandhian movement in India. Miss Juliette Morgan, sensitive and frail, did not long survive the rejection and condemnation of the white community, but long before she died in the summer of 1957, the name of Mahatma Gandhi was well known in Montgomery."

Postscript
Juliette Hampton Morgan was inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame on March 3, 2005, nearly 50 years after her death. On November 1, 2005, the Montgomery City Council voted to rename the main public library after Morgan. Her deeds continue to inspire people across different societal boundaries to work toward equity and justice for all.

Sources: Juliette Hampton Morgan: From Socialite to Social Activist, by Mary Stanton, Alabama Heritage, Summer 2004
Induction of Juliette Hampton Morgan to The Alabama Women's Hall of Fame, by Mary Stanton, March 3, 2005 Alabama Department of Archives and History