By David Irvin
When John F. Sawyer Jr. came to Montgomery, he had just left the Navy and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was already underway. He decided to support the boycott, and he walked to and from Alabama State University where he was enrolled.
“There were certain places where we could not walk through — where Lanier High School is, we could not walk through that area,” Sawyer Jr. said.
He would start from where he lived on what is now Rosa Parks Ave., one block north of the firehouse, and walk all the way to school, often getting there before the bus, he said. He would talk with friends about their aspirations and dreams, he said, always careful to avoid the areas where they might run into trouble.
“We had to walk on the edges of the black community and the white community. If you walked through the white community, and you were not working in that area, you were subject to be questioned, arrested and whatever. But we were very much aware of where we could go and where we couldn’t.”
His father, John F. Sawyer, was working as a postal carrier in Montgomery when the bus boycott began. His job required him to ride the bus to make his routes, so when much of his community stopped using the transit system in the mid 1950s to protest discriminatory practices, he kept riding.
Sawyer was subjected to segregation on the buses, he admits, but he had a family to raise, and had a good job he needed to keep. Still he understood the intentions of those that boycotted the transit system and supported the cause, he said.
“As a postman, a lot of times I had to stand with my bag on my shoulder, because if the black section was crowded, I just had to stand,” the 91-year-old said. “I was with them in whatever they were doing, but I had to — because at that time I was a letter carrier — I had to ride the bus.”
However, he only rode the bus when he was carrying out his duties, he said; at other times he used his personal vehicle to get around. Montgomery took its first tentative steps toward change following the boycott, which helped both blacks and whites, he said.
“Slowly there was some change,” he said. “Some people never change. We should learn to cooperate, one with another.
Sawyer Jr. said participants in the boycott were often suspected of running taxi services and pulled over and questioned, especially if multiple people rode together in a car.
“You learned how to answer the questions in a respectful way, and say the person was a part of your family,” he said.
Sawyer Jr. wonders about the ultimate success of the boycott. Just because minorities got the right to sit where they pleased on the Montgomery buses doesn’t mean they were treated as equals in society.
However, both father and son spoke of kindness and generosity they saw from individuals of both races, before and after the boycott.
“There are still individuals in this city, on both sides, black and white, that still do not care for the other,” Sawyer Jr. said. “So until your heart is pure and genuine, there can’t be love. There can’t be respect.”