Montgomery Bus Boycott

Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a political and social protest campaign that started in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, USA, intended to oppose the city's policy of racial segregation on its public transit system. Many important figures in the civil rights movement were involved in the boycott, including Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and others, as listed below. The boycott caused crippling financial deficit for the Montgomery public transit system, because the city's black population who were the principal boycotters were also the bulk of the system's paying customers. The campaign lasted from December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person, to December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling, Browder v. Gayle, took effect, and led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional.[1]


Events leading up to boycott

In 1944, athletic star Jackie Robinson took a similar stand in a confrontation with a United States Army officer in Fort Hood, Texas, refusing to move to the back of a bus. Robinson was brought before a court-martial, which acquitted him.[2] The NAACP had accepted and litigated other cases before, such as that of Irene Morgan ten years earlier, which resulted in a victory in the U.S. Supreme Court on Commerce Clause grounds. That victory, however, overturned state segregation laws only insofar as they applied to travel in interstate commerce, such as interstate bus travel, and Southern bus companies immediately circumvented the Morgan ruling by instituting their own Jim Crow regulations. In November, 1955, just three weeks before Parks' defiance of Jim Crow laws in Montgomery, the Interstate Commerce Commission, in response to a complaint filed by WAC Sarah Keys, closed the legal loophole left by the Morgan ruling in a landmark case known as Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company. The ICC prohibited individual carriers from imposing their own segregation rules on interstate travelers, declaring that to do so was a violation of the anti-discrimination provision of the Interstate Commerce Act. But neither the Supreme Court's Morgan ruling nor the ICC's Keys ruling addressed the matter of Jim Crow travel within the individual states.

Black activists had begun to build a case to challenge state bus segregation laws around the arrest of a 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, a student at Booker T. Washington High School in Montgomery. On March 2, 1955, Colvin was handcuffed, arrested and forcibly removed from a public bus when she refused to give up her seat to a white man. She claimed that her constitutional rights were being violated. At the time, Colvin was active in the NAACP Youth Council, a group to which Parks served as Advisor.

Method of segregation on Montgomery buses

Under the system of segregation used on Montgomery buses, white people who boarded the bus took seats in the front rows, filling the bus toward the back. Black people who boarded the bus took seats in the back rows, filling the bus toward the front. Eventually, the two sections would meet, and the bus would be full. If other black people boarded the bus, they were required to stand. If another white person boarded the bus, then everyone in the black row nearest the front had to get up and stand, so that a new row for white people could be created. Often when boarding the buses, black people were required to pay at the front, get off, and reenter the bus through a separate door at the back.[3][4] On some occasions bus drivers would drive away before black passengers were able to reboard.[5] National City Lines owned the Montgomery Bus Line at the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Rosa Parks

The National City Lines bus, No. 2857, on which Rosa Parks was riding before she was arrested (a GM "old-look" transit bus, serial number 1132), is now a museum exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum.

Rosa Parks was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. She was a seamstress by profession and secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. Shortly before being arrested on December 1, 1955, she had completed a course in "Race Relations" at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee where non-violent civil-disobedience had been discussed as a tactic.

Before Parks was arrested in 1955, she had a small episode on a bus in 1943. Parks was ordered to enter at the back of the bus. As she was heading to the back of the bus, the bus driver drove off without her. On that day, Parks promised herself that she would never again ride a bus driven by James F. Blake, the offending driver. On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Parks was sitting in the front-most row for black people. When a Caucasian man boarded the bus, the bus driver told everyone in her row to move back to create a new row for the whites. At that moment, Parks suddenly realized in horror that she was again on a bus driven by Blake. While all of the other black people in her row complied, Parks refused, and was arrested for failing to obey the driver's seat assignments, as city ordinances did not explicitly mandate segregation but did give the bus driver authority to assign seats. Found guilty on December 5,[6] Parks was fined $10 plus a court cost of $4[7], but she appealed. NAACP leader E.D. Nixon had been planning to start a boycott of this nature and used her arrest to trigger the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As a result, Rosa Parks is considered one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement.

E.D. Nixon

Some action against segregation had been in the works for some time before Rosa Parks' arrest, under the leadership of E.D. Nixon, president of the local NAACP chapter and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Nixon intended that her arrest be a test case to allow Montgomery's black citizens to challenge segregation on the city's public buses. With this goal, community leaders had been waiting for the right person to be arrested, a person who would anger the black community into action, who would agree to test the segregation laws in court, and who, most importantly, was "above reproach." When 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested early in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, E.D. Nixon thought he had found the perfect person, but the teenager turned out to be pregnant. Nixon later explained, "I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with." Parks, however, was a good candidate because of her employment and marital status, along with her good standing in the community.

Between Parks' arrest and trial, Nixon organized a meeting of local ministers at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s church. Though Nixon could not attend the meeting because of his work schedule, he arranged that no election of a leader for the proposed boycott would take place until his return. When he returned he caucused with Ralph Abernathy and Rev. E.N. French to name the association to lead the boycott (they selected the 'Montgomery Improvement Association' ("MIA")) to the city, and select King (Nixon's choice) to lead the boycott. Nixon wanted King to lead the boycott because the young minister was new to Montgomery and the city fathers had not had time to intimidate him. At a subsequent, larger meeting of ministers, Nixon's agenda was threatened by the clergymen's reluctance to support the campaign. Nixon was indignant, pointing out that their poor congregations worked to put money into the collection plates so these ministers could live well, and when those congregations needed the clergy to stand up for them, those comfortable ministers refused to do so. Nixon threatened to reveal the ministers' cowardice to the black community, and King spoke up, denying he was afraid to support the boycott. King agreed to lead the MIA, and Nixon was elected its treasurer.


On the night of Rosa Parks' arrest, Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Women's Political Council, printed and circulated a flyer throughout Montgomery's black community which read as follows:

"Another woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman's case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don't ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday."[7]

The next morning at a church meeting led by the new MIA head, King, a citywide boycott of public transit was proposed to demand a fixed dividing line for the segregated sections of the buses. Such a line would have meant that if the white section of the bus was oversubscribed, whites would have to stand; blacks would not be forced to remit their seats to whites.

This demand was a compromise for the leaders of the boycott who believed that the city of Montgomery would be more likely to accept it rather than a demand for a full integration of the buses. In this respect, the MIA leadership followed the pattern of earlier boycott campaigns in the Deep South during the 1950s. A prime example was the successful boycott a few years earlier of service stations in Mississippi for refusing to provide restrooms for blacks. The organizer of that campaign, T. R. M. Howard of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership, had spoken on the brutal slaying of Emmett Till as King's guest at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only four days before Parks's arrest. Parks was in the audience and later said that Emmett Till was on her mind when she refused to give up her seat.[8]

The MIA's demand for a fixed dividing line was to be supplemented by a requirement that all bus passengers receive courteous treatment by bus operators, be seated on a first-come, first-served basis, and blacks be employed as bus drivers. The proposal was passed, and the boycott was to commence the following Monday. To publicize the impending boycott it was advertised at black churches throughout Montgomery the following Sunday.

On Saturday, December 3, it was evident that the black community would support the boycott, and very few blacks rode the buses that day. That night a mass meeting was held to determine if the protest would continue, and attendees enthusiastically agreed. The boycott proved extremely effective, with enough riders lost to the city transit system to cause serious economic distress. Martin Luther King later wrote "[a] miracle had taken place." Instead of riding buses, boycotters organized a system of carpools, with car owners volunteering their vehicles or themselves driving people to various destinations. Some white housewives also drove their black domestic servants to work. It cannot be determined to what extent this was based on sympathy with the boycott, or simply the desire to have their employees present and working.[citation needed] When the city pressured local insurance companies to stop insuring cars used in the carpools, the boycott leaders arranged policies with Lloyd's of London.

Black taxi drivers charged ten cents per ride, a fare equal to the cost to ride the bus, in support of the boycott. When word of this reached city officials on December 8, 1955, the order went out to fine any cab driver who charged a rider less than 45 cents. In addition to using private motor vehicles, some people used non-motorized means to get around, such as cycling, walking, or even riding mules or driving horse-drawn buggies. Some people also hitchhiked. During rush hours, sidewalks were often crowded. As the buses received extremely few, if any, passengers, their officials asked the City Commission to allow stopping service to black communities.[9] Across the nation, black churches raised money to support the boycott and collected new and slightly used shoes to replace the tattered footwear of Montgomery's black citizens, many of whom walked everywhere rather than ride the buses and submit to Jim Crow laws.

In response, opposing whites swelled the ranks of the White Citizens' Council, the membership of which doubled during the course of the boycott. The councils sometimes resorted to violence: Martin Luther King's and Ralph Abernathy's houses were firebombed, as were four black Baptist churches. Boycotters were often physically attacked.

Under a 1921 ordinance, 156 protesters were arrested for "hindering" a bus, including King. He was ordered to pay a $500 fine or serve 386 days in jail. He ended up spending two weeks in jail. The move backfired by bringing national attention to the protest. King commented on the arrest by saying: "I was proud of my crime. It was the crime of joining my people in a nonviolent protest against injustice."[10]


Pressure increased across the country and on June 4, 1956, the federal district court ruled that Alabama's racial segregation laws for buses were unconstitutional. However, an appeal kept the segregation intact, and the boycott continued until, finally, on November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court upheld the district court's ruling. This victory led to a city ordinance that allowed black bus passengers to sit virtually anywhere they wanted, and the boycott officially ended December 20, 1956. The boycott of the buses had lasted for 381 days. Martin Luther King, Jr. capped off the victory with a magnanimous speech to encourage acceptance of the decision. The Montgomery Bus Boycott also had ramifications that reached far beyond the desegregation of public buses and provided more than just a positive answer to the Supreme Court's action against racial segregation. The Montgomery Bus Boycott reverberated throughout the United States and stimulated the national Civil Rights Movement.[11]

The boycott resulted in the U.S. civil rights movement receiving one of its first victories and gave Martin Luther King, Jr. the national attention that made him one of the prime leaders of the cause.




(from Who Was Involved)

See also


  1. ^ Montgomery Bus Boycott ~ Civil Rights Movement Veterans
  2. ^ Jessica McElrath, Jackie Robinson profile, Retrieved July 4, 2008.
  3. ^ Garrow (1986) p. 13. David Garrow wrote, "Mrs. [Rosa] Parks once told ... how she had been physically thrown off a bus some ten years earlier when, after paying her fare at the front of the bus, she had refused to get off and reenter by the back door -- a custom often inflicted on black riders."
  4. ^ Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, cited at Montgomery Bus Boycott: "Frequently Negroes paid their fare at the front door, and then were forced to get off and reboard at the rear."
  5. ^ William J. Cooper, Jr., Thomas E. Terrill, The American South: A History, Volume II, 4 ed., Rowman and Littlefield, 2009, p. 730.
  6. ^ "Parks, Rosa Louise." Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Online (accessed May 8, 2009).
  7. ^ a b Rosa Parks, civil rights icon, dead at 92 - The Boston Globe
  8. ^ David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009)
  9. ^ Montgomery Bus Boycott: The story of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement
  10. ^ The Life and Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Part 1 of 2) |
  11. ^ Wright, H. R: The Birth of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, page 123. Charro Book Co.,Inc.,1991. ISBN 0-9629468-0-X

Further reading

  • Berg, Allison, “Trauma and Testimony in Black Women’s Civil Rights Memoirs: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It, Warriors Don’t Cry, and From the Mississippi Delta,” Journal of Women’s History, 21 (Fall 2009), 84–107.
  • Branch, Taylor. Parting The Waters: America In The King Years, 1954-63 (1988; New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1989). ISBN 0-671-68742-5
  • Clayborne Carson et al., editors, Eyes on The Prize Civil Rights Reader: documents, speeches, and first hand accounts from the black freedom struggle (New York:Penguin Books, 1991). ISBN 0-14-015403-5
  • Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (1986) ISBN 0-394-75623-1
  • David J. Garrow, editor, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1987). ISBN 0-87049-527-5
  • Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Toward Freedom. ISBN 0-06-250490-8
  • Aldon D. Morris, The Origins Of The Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing For Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984). ISBN 0-02-922130-7
  • Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested: The Story Of The Civil Rights Movement In The Deep South. ISBN 0-14-006753-1
  • Juan Williams, Eyes on The Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965 (New York: Penguin Books, 1988). ISBN 0-14-009653-1
  • Walsh Frank, Landmark Events in American History: The Montgomery Bus Boycott.
  • Russell Freedman, "Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott"

External links

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