By Crystal Bonvillian
Idessa Redden apologized for the stuffiness of her house as she sat down in her chair, her cane at her side.
“I have four air conditioners going and a ceiling fan, but it don’t feel like it,” the 92-year-old Montgomery native said in a recent interview at her home.
The heat of the August afternoon was drastically different from the cool of that December night in 1955 when Redden first heard of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It was Dec. 5, four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man, and the black community was angry.
They’d had enough.
Under the leadership of the charismatic, energetic young King, Redden and thousands of other black Montgomery residents would see through a year-long bus boycott that ultimately desegregated public transportation not only in Montgomery, but across the United States.
Redden’s participation in the bus boycott was perhaps inevitable. In 1948, the then-36-year-old braved racism at the registrar’s office.
“The registrar said, ‘What do you want, girl?'” Redden said. “I say, ‘What do people come here for?’ I guess it was considered to be sassy.”
It took seven months of failed tests before Redden was passed. Then there was the $36 poll tax she was forced to pay.
“At that time, $36 was kinda hard to get, but I scraped it up,” Redden said. “I know they were expecting me not to be able to pay the poll tax, but I was determined.”
That same determination shone through seven years later, as Redden listened to King speak to a standing-room-only crowd at Holt Street Baptist Church. King’s speech at that mass meeting helped fuel the boycott, which had begun that morning when more than 40,000 blacks refused to ride city buses.
Redden says she was “enthused to death” by the young preacher’s words that night on Holt Street. She and King had a lot in common — they both knew injustice.
“That just made me want to follow him,” Redden said. “And I felt he was going to lead us the right way. In fact, he did.”
For the next year, Redden was instrumental in helping the boycott stay strong. After taking her husband to work each morning, she would drive through the city, picking people up and taking them to work.
Redden estimates she drove between 30 and 40 people to work each day.
“At that time, black people was concerned about one another,” she said. “Everybody that had a car, if you saw somebody walking, you stopped and put them in your car.”
There were tough times throughout the boycott. Redden remembers a night that she and other members of the movement were forced to stay overnight at First Baptist Church on North Ripley Street.
“I had been to a voter registration meeting that Sunday,” Redden said. “When I got to First Baptist, I saw some white men in the parking lot across the street and thought Robert Kennedy had sent us help. They happened to be Ku Kluxers.”
King left the church and, by running through backyards, made it to his own church, Dexter Avenue Baptist, to call Kennedy. National Guard troops were later sent to protect the protesters.
Redden said although she was afraid to see those Klan members advancing on the church, King’s influence helped calm her.
“You see, that man could talk to the man upstairs,” Redden said. “And we talk to the man upstairs. (But) he could hear answers. Oh, my Lord.”