A longtime organizer and activist, Nixon was president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Montgomery Welfare League, and the Montgomery Voters League. At the time, Nixon already led the Montgomery branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, known as the Pullman Porters Union, which he had helped organize.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described Nixon as "one of the chief voices of the Negro community in the area of civil rights," and "a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the long oppressed people of the State of Alabama."
Early life and educationEdgar D. Nixon was born on July 12, 1899 in rural Lowndes County, Alabama to Wesley M. Nixon and Sue Ann Chappell Nixon. As a child, Nixon received 16 months of formal education, as black students were ill-served in the segregated public school system. His mother died when he was young, and he and his seven siblings were reared among extended family in Montgomery. His father was a Baptist minister.
After working in a train station baggage room, Nixon rose to become a Pullman car porter, which was a well-respected position with good pay. He was able to travel around the country and worked steadily. He worked with them until 1964. In 1928, he joined the new union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, helping organize its branch in Montgomery. He also served as its president for many years.
Marriage and familyHe married Alease (who died in 1934) and they had a son, E. D. Nixon, Jr. (1928–2011). He became an actor known by the stage name of Nick La Tour.
Nixon later married Arlette Nixon, who was with him during many of the civil rights events.
Civil rights activismYears before the bus boycott, Nixon had worked for voting rights and civil rights for African Americans in Montgomery. Like others in the state, they had been essentially disfranchised since the start of the 20th century by changes in the Alabama state constitution and electoral laws. He also served as an unelected advocate for the African-American community, helping individuals negotiate with white office holders, policemen, and civil servants.
Nixon joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), becoming president of the Montgomery chapter and, within two years, president of the state organization.
In 1940, Nixon organized 750 African Americans to march to the Montgomery County courthouse and attempt to register to vote. They were unsuccessful, as the white Democrats used subjective rules to exclude them.
In 1954, he was the first black to run for a seat on the county Democratic Executive Committee. The next year, he questioned the Democratic candidates for the Montgomery City Commission on their positions on civil rights issues.
Challenging bus segregationIn the early 1950s, Nixon and Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women's Political Council, decided to mount a court challenge to the discriminatory seating practices on Montgomery's municipal buses, along with a boycott of the bus company. A Montgomery ordinance reserved the front seats on these buses for white passengers only, forcing African-American riders to sit in the back. The middle section was available to blacks unless the bus became so crowded that white passengers were standing, in which case, blacks were supposed to give up their seats and stand if necessary. Blacks constituted the majority of riders on the city-owned bus system.
Before the activists could mount the court challenge, they needed someone to voluntarily violate the bus seating law and be arrested for it. Nixon carefully searched for a suitable plaintiff. At the same time, some women mounted their own individual challenges. For instance, the student Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger.
He rejected one candidate because he didn't believe she had the fortitude to see the case through. Nixon rejected Colvin because she became an unwed mother, and a third candidate, Mary Louise Smith, because her father was allegedly an alcoholic. (In 1956, these two women were among five originally included in the case, Browder v. Gayle, filed on behalf of them specifically and representing black riders who had been treated unjustly on the city buses.) See below.)
The final choice was Rosa Parks, the elected secretary of the Montgomery NAACP. On December 1, 1955, Parks entered a Montgomery bus, refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, and was arrested. After being called about Parks' arrest, Nixon went to bail her out of jail. He arranged for Parks' friend, Clifford Durr, a sympathetic white lawyer, to represent her. After years of working with Parks, Nixon was certain that she was the ideal candidate to challenge the discriminatory seating policy. Even so, Nixon had to persuade Parks to lead the fight. After consulting with her mother and husband, Parks accepted the challenge.
Organizing the boycottAfter Parks' arrest, Nixon called a number of local ministers to organize support for the boycott; the third man he called was Martin Luther King Jr., a young minister who was newly arrived from Atlanta, Georgia. King said he would think about it and call back. When King responded, he said that he would participate in the boycott and had already arranged a meeting of his church congregation on the issue. Nixon could not attend because of an out-of-town business trip; he took precautions to see that no one was elected to lead the boycott campaign until he returned.
When Nixon returned to Montgomery, he met with Rev. Ralph David Abernathy and Rev. E.N. French to plan the program for the next boycott meeting. They came up with a list of demands for the bus company, named the new organization the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), and discussed candidates for president of the association. Nixon recommended King to Abernathy and French because Nixon believed that King had not been compromised by dealing with the local white power structure.
After a successful one-day bus boycott on December 5, 1955, Nixon met with a group of ministers to plan the larger boycott. But, the meeting did not proceed as he had envisioned. The ministers wanted to organize a low-key boycott that would not upset the white power structure in Montgomery. This was completely opposite of what Nixon and the other activists hoped to achieve. An exasperated Nixon threatened to publicly denounce the ministers as cowards. King stood and said that he was no coward. By the end of the meeting, King had accepted the MIA presidency and Nixon had become the treasurer. That evening, King delivered the keynote address to the full meeting.
Nixon shared his labor and civil rights contacts with the MIA, organizing financial and other resources to help manage and support the boycott. These were critical to its success.
Successful boycottWhat was expected to be a short boycott lasted 381 days, more than one year. Despite fierce political opposition, police coercion, personal threats and their own sacrifices, the blacks of Montgomery held the boycott. They walked to work; the people with cars gave others rides. They gave up some trips. Bus ridership plummeted, as blacks were the majority riders in the system, and the bus company was on the verge of financial ruin. In late January a bomb was set off near the home of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and on February 1, 1956, a bomb exploded in front of Nixon's home.
That was the day the attorneys Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed the petition in federal district court for it to review the state and city laws on bus segregation; this was the case that became known as Browder v. Gayle (1956). They filed on behalf of five Montgomery women originally: Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, and Jeanatte Reese. (Reese withdrew from the case in February.)
On June 5, 1956, a three-judge panel of the US District Court determined that Montgomery's segregation law was unconstitutional, violating the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. On November 13, 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling. On December 17, 1956 the Supreme Court rejected appeals by the city and state to reconsider its decision.
Three days later, the Supreme Court issued its order for Montgomery to desegregate its buses. With that victory, the MIA organizers ended the boycott.
At a later rally at New York City's Madison Square Garden, Nixon talked about the symbolism of the boycott to an audience of supporters:
"I'm from Montgomery, Alabama, a city that's known as the 'Cradle of the Confederacy', that had stood still for more than ninety-three years until Rosa L. Parks was arrested and thrown in jail like a common criminal. Fifty thousand people rose up and caught hold to the Cradle of the Confederacy and began to rock it till the 'Jim Crow' rockers began to reel and the segregated slats began to fall out."
After the boycottNixon's relationship with the MIA was contentious. He frequently had sharp disagreements with others in the group and competed for leadership. He expressed resentment that King and Abernathy had received most of the credit for the boycott, as opposed to the local activists who had already spent years organizing against racism. But King admired Nixon, describing him as "one of the chief voices of the Negro community in the area of civil rights," and "a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the long oppressed people of the State of Alabama."
Nixon resigned his post as MIA treasurer in 1957, writing a bitter letter to King complaining that he had been treated as a child and a "newcomer." Nixon continued to feud with Montgomery's Black middle class community for the next decade.
By the late 1960s, through a series of political defeats, his leadership role in the MIA was eliminated. After retiring from the railroad, Nixon worked as the recreation director of a public housing project. He continued to work for civil rights, especially to improve housing and education for blacks in Montgomery.
Edgar Nixon died at age 87 on February 25, 1987.