Sunday, April 09, 2006

A 'Soul'dier Before Martin and Rosa...

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Alabama Remembers Black Soldier's Defiance
By AMANDA THOMAS, Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Five years before Rosa Parks launched a bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat to a white man, a uniformed black soldier balked at an order to board a bus through a back door and paid with his life.

Yet the 1950 police shooting of Pfc. Thomas Edwards Brooks had largely been lost to history until it was brought up again during the events marking the 50th anniversary of the boycott and in a new book about the historic protest.

Now the case is getting the kind of attention boycott veterans say is long overdue.

"A lot of this stuff that went on on the buses will never really be known except among the black people who quite often felt there was nothing that could be done," said Nick LaTour, son of boycott organizer E.D. Nixon. "This is the kind of thing that had gone on through the years that led up to the people saying, 'This was enough.'"

Harassment of black bus riders had gone on for years before Parks' famous defiance on Dec. 1, 1955. And sitting in the back of the bus was just one of the indignities blacks faced.

Under the segregated system in the 1950s, they were forced to pay the driver at the front, then go to the rear of the vehicle to board. Brooks, a 21-year-old soldier who got on a Montgomery bus on Aug. 12, 1950, made the mistake of entering through the front door instead of the back.

According to the account by Donnie Williams and Wayne Greenhaw in their book, "The Thunder of Angels," Brooks refused to get off the bus and board again from the back. The confrontation escalated and a policeman struck him on the head with a billy club and pulled him down the aisle to the front door.

Quoting witnesses, both white and black, the authors say Brooks shook free, pushed the officer and driver aside, and bolted out the door. The officer shouted "Stop!" then shot Brooks, who stumbled, fell and died, the authors say.

E.D. Nixon, a civil rights activist who would later help organize the yearlong boycott, drove to the police department that night, demanding to know what happened. After being told that Brooks was killed by a law enforcement officer who was protecting himself in the line of duty, Nixon filed a complaint.

The official response was that the shooting was unavoidable, according to Williams and Greenhaw.

State Rep. Alvin Holmes, a veteran black political activist in Montgomery, is pushing for a statue or marker to be erected as part of the 50th anniversary, which will culminate Dec. 21, the official end of the boycott in 1956.

Authors Greenhaw and Williams agree that Brooks is particularly deserving of such an honor.

"This man gave up his life for all of us just as if he were in a war on foreign land," said Williams, who spent years researching the boycott. "He was a soldier and was willing to give up his life in a war for us. He was also a soldier in another way — a civil rights soldier — and he did die for us all."

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