United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"Boycott Blues"

 by Andrea Davis Pinkney

and Brian Pinkney

January 15, 2017

 (MLK Celebration) 

Child, child. 

You have not known weary till you have walked in my shoes.  You have not known low-down till you have sung my song.  You ever hear a dog wail?  You ever hear a hound moan?

Well, listen good.  Because here it is.  Steady.  Slow.  A story told with steps.  With tired feet.  With tired bones.  I’m gonna tell the story with my guitar.  So you don’t forget.  So you know how it goes.  Dog Tired, that’s me.

This story begins with shoes.  This story is all for true.  This story walks.  And walks.  And walks.  To the blues.


It was December 1, 1955, when the blues came to call—the same day Jim Crow flew in waving his bony wings.  Uh-huh.  Bony wings and all, Jim Crow landed with a will.  Yes he did, child.  Yes he did.

Jim Crow was segregation.  Laws that said black people and white people could not mix.

And on that day, it was Rosa Parks who got Him Crow’s peck, peck, peck, right up close. 

Rosa Parks was a seamstress who worked at the Montgomery Fair department store.  On that blue-as-blue evening, Rosa’s workday ended like any other.  She stepped onto the Cleveland Avenue bus and paid her dime to ride.  The bus was packed tight.  But Rosa spotted an empty seat one row behind the whites-only section.  She sat down.

When the bus pulled up at the Empire Theater, several white people got on.  All but one of them found seats.  The last was left standing.  That’s when Jim Crow showed up –struttin’.

Whenever Jim Crow got to laying down the letter of the law, to stating the state of segregation, he did it with his peck, peck, peck.  And on this day, Jim Crow’s peck was a duet.

He was letting it fly with the bus driver, who, along with Jim Crow, stood over Rosa and told her to give up her seat to a white man who was still standing.

Even with that blue-black wing pressed at Rosa’s nose.

Even with the bus driver’s finger waving at Rosa.  Even with Jim Crow’s peck, peck, peck sounding like rust on a bedspring, Rosa stayed seated.

Twice the bus driver told Rosa to move.  Twice she looked at him without blinking, then turned her eye to Jim Crow.  All she said was no.

“You’re breaking my law,” Jim Crow crooned.  The bus driver said he’d call the police.  Rosa told him to go ahead.

The police arrested Rosa and took her to jail.  Rosa’s friend, E.D. Nixon, raised money for Rosa’s bail.  He got her released and told Rosa that if she were brave enough, she could stomp out Jim Crow.  She could break those bony wings.  She could stop Jim Crow’s peck, peck, peck.  She could help end segregation.  Rosa agreed right away.

On December 5, 1955, the black people in town stopped riding the city buses.  They were protesting the treatment Rosa had received. 

That night, at the Holt Street Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the people of Montgomery.

Child, child.  I have put my doggie tail in that church every Sunday.  But I have never seen so many folks at Holt.  People came from all over to hear the great Dr. King.

He said that we should “fight until justice runs down like … a mighty stream.”  And fight we did.  We fought a quiet fight.  No slighshots.  No weapons.  Not even spitballs.  We fought with our feet.

We said if you don’t, we won’t.  If you don’t let us ride in any seat we wish, we won’t ride at all.  I f you don’t treat us fairly, we won’t pay the fare.  If we don’t pay the fare, you won’t  have a bus business.  And we won’t let Jim Crow smack us back with his bony wings.  Or slow us up with his peck, peck, peck.

Uh-uh.  We won’t.

And we stood by our word.  Yes we did.  Child, child.  We did.

That’s when our feet took to the streets.  To the sidewlaks.  To the roads.. That’s when the city buses rolled and rolled.  Nearly empty, they rolled.

That’s when the boycott blues truly began—when we walked.  With dogged feet.  With dog-tired feet.  With boycott feet.  With boycott blues.

Ninety days passed.  We kept on.  A hundred days gone.  We stayed strong.  Walked in the rain, we did.  Walked day and night, we did.  Walked for our fight, we did.  Yes, we did.  Uh-huh, child, we did!

One hundred twenty days.  One-thirty.  One-fifty.  Walked to work, we did.  Walked to school, we did.  Walked to church, we did.  Yes, we did, child.  Yes.  We did.

One hundred eighty days of walking.  One hundred degrees in the shade.  Sidewalks steaming.  Sweaty faces fleaming.  Hot dust rising off the roads.  And the buses rolled and rolled.

When the blues burned so blue-hot that they turned our beat to a deep blue shade of determination, we found a way out of no way.  We found other modes to get to where we needed to go.

Soon, instead of only walking, we rode.  Rode with our friends, we did.  Rode with kind strangers, we did.

Rode past those empty buses, we did.  Uh-huh.  We did.  Yes, child.  We did.  Didn’t set foot on a bus, either.  No, sir, we didn’t.  Wouldn’t pay our dime to ride, either.  Uh-uh.  We still got to where we needed to go.  We still stood by Rosa Parks for saying no.

But Jim Crow, he was determined, too.  He kept up with his bony wings, and his peck, peck, peck.

Two hundred days later, we were still going.  Blues and all.  We pressed on.

It wasn’t all black folks boycotting, either.  Some white people came along for the ride, too—to show us support.  To help end Jim Crow.

Soon there were all kinds of people with keep-going feet.  With can’t-stop-us feet.  There were black folks and white folks with the boycott blues.

And time walked on.  And on.  Day two-twenty.  Day two-sixty-two.  Three hundred days of walking with the boycott blues.

As strong as we were, some wanted to quit.  And child, child, I can’t say I blamed them.  After all, when you’ve been walking from De-cember to No-vember, a bus begins to  look like a sweet temptation.  Even if  it means riding in the back.  Even if  Jim Crow sits in your lap.

When I saw somebody start to go down that road, when I heard somebody say, “What’s the use?  I’m paying my dime to ride,” I played my guitar as loud as I could to drown out Jim Crow’s peck, peck, peck.  To stir up a rhythm worth following.  To somehow soften those boycott blues.  Just a few more steps, and we’re there.  I strummed my message loud and clear.

Then came the miracle.  The Supreme Court invited Jim Crow in for a visit, and waved a gavel on his bony wings.  The judge in the courthouse said, “Jim, you’re all wrong.”

Right then, Jim Crow grew tired.  His bony wings started to ache.  His peck, peck, peck  began to lose its point.  Oh, child, that was a happy day!

On November 13, 1956, when the Supreme Court struck down the segregation laws, the bus drivers of Montgomery, Alabama, were forced to say we will.  We will  let black people sit wherever they want on city buses.  We will not  practice segregation any more.

And the black folks of Montgomery said we will.  We will  pay our dime.  We will  ride with pride.  We will  sit at the front of the bus and enjoy our view of justice. 

On December 21, 1956, the law was official.  Son after, black people had a front-row seat, right behind the driver.  So did Rosa Parks.

That was day three-eighty-two, when Jim Crow flew away.  He had no more power in Montgomery. 

It was the blues that got us through.  It was the blues that helped our stride.  Because blue is a so-fine color when it’s painting the sky.  Blue is the promise of possibility when it’s coming on as the dawn.  Blue is all beauty when it’s flowing through a sea of hope.

Now segregation was a loser’s croon.  And child, child, we rejoiced.  Our low-down tune changed to a celebration song.

So, child, child,  that’s the end of my tale.  Now you know how it goes.  Now you see the power of won’t-stop shoes.  Now you know the story of the boycott blues.

Time to hightail it home.

Bony wings, adieu.

Peck, peck, peck, later for you.

Bye-bye, boycott blues.