Edgar “E.D.” Nixon was a central figure of the civil rights movement in Alabama and was one of the people responsible for organizing the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. While Nixon’s efforts have gone largely unheralded, his contributions stretched far beyond that moment in history.
Nixon was born July 12, 1899 in rural Lowndes County, Ala. He attended school for just 16 months as a child before going to work at a local train station ultimately becoming a Pullman train car porter. He joined The Brotherhood of Sleeping Cars Porters union and was eventually named its local chapter president. According to one account, Nixon befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, who he met by chance while working as porter.
Inspired by BSCP leader A. Philip Randolph, Nixon became an activist, joining the NAACP. In the ’40’s, Nixon became Montgomery’s NAACP president.
Nixon maneuvered himself into becoming a solid voting rights strategist, organizing and also leading the Montgomery Voters League. Nixon and his associates fought against the restrictive practices that disrupted the voting registration process for Blacks in the city. While doing so, Nixon’s political star was rising and he narrowly lost an election for city office in 1954.
In 1955, Montgomery’s bus segregation laws had become a focal point and the NAACP was looking at various ways to challenge the rule. Earlier in the year, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white passenger. Although the NAACP initially wanted to build a case around Colvin the fact she was an unwed mother became an issue.
Several other women who were arrested for breaking the segregation law were also vetted by Nixon but didn’t work out. The Montgomery Bus Boycott became a reality after the December arrest of Nixon’s NAACP secretary, Rosa Parks. Because of Parks’ conservative background and image, the NAACP supported her becoming the face of the cause.
Nixon put his house on bond to pay Parks’ bail and worked with white civil rights attorney Clifford Durr. Parks’ arrest gave the boycott momentum and he enlisted a rising young minister, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to lead the boycott. King and fellow minister Ralph D. Abernathy formed the Montgomery Improvement Association and Nixon was its treasurer.
For over a year, the leaders of the boycott endured several death threats and house bombings, including attacks of both King and Nixon’s homes within days of each other. Eventually the “Browder v. Gayle” case made its way from lower courts to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in December 1956, it was ruled that Montgomery’s bus laws were unconstitutional.
King, Parks and other civil rights leaders were celebrated for the victory but Nixon contributions were lost to history and he came to resent King. He split with the King and the MIA in 1957 but continued working on behalf of Black Montgomery residents after he retired. Nixon passed at the age of 87 on February 25, 1987.