Before the Boycott
It was common practice on busses throughout the South for blacks to sit in the back while whites sat in front. Each used separate entrances. If the bus filled, the front-most row of blacks would have to stand to allow the next white passenger to sit.
In 1946, the NAACP represented Irene Morgan in an anti-segregation case against Virginia busses. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation on busses was unconstitutional, but the ruling only held power over interstate transportation.
E D Nixon was president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP. He wanted to build a movement against segregation on city busses. He needed a figure to rally around: someone popular, willing to fight and “without reproach”. Claudette Colvin, a 15 year old member of her school’s NAACP Youth Council, was arrested for refusing to yield her seat. Nixon thought he had the right person. When he discovered Colvin was pregnant, he chose to avoid the controversy and wait for another chance.
Rosa Parks was a seamstress, secretary of the local NAACP and advisor to Colvin’s Youth Council. In 1943, she boarded a bus driven by James F Blake. As was common, he forced her to pay up front, exit the bus, re-enter the back of the bus and take her seat. After she paid, he drove off without her. Parks vowed to never ride a bus driven by Blake again.
In 1955, she completed a course on race relations at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Non-violent civil disobedience was one of the main topics. Thursday, December 1, of that year, she was sitting in the forward-most row of blacks on a full bus when the driver ordered her row to stand for a white passenger. At the sound of his voice, she realized the driver was Blake. She refused to stand and was arrested. Segregated seating was not specifically against the law, but refusing to follow the orders of the driver was.
E D Nixon in Motion
Nixon knew Parks was the focal point his uprising needed. She was respected in the community, a leader and willing to fight. He bailed her out of jail that evening and convinced her to join him in ending segregation on busses.
He got right on the phone with Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson, who contacted attorney Fred Gray. They agreed that a long-term legal battle should begin, starting with a one day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. Nixon spent most of the night on the phone, gathering support from various community leaders.
With the aid of two of her students, Robinson worked late into the night on a flier. By 4am December 2, ten hours after Parks' arrest, thousands of copies of the following announcement had been printed:
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.
Nixon arranged for a meeting to take place Friday evening at Martin Luther King Jr’s church. Around 50 people gathered, agreeing to call themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association. They voted to make King their spokesman. Nixon had attempted to organize area ministers before, but found they were too comfortable and reluctant to shake things up. King was a newcomer and not afraid to start revolution.
The MIA decided to hold a meeting Monday night after the boycott. They added this information to Robinson’s flier and distributed another 7000 copies.
The Boycott’s First Day
Monday morning, December 5, busses moved about the city mostly empty. Blacks gathered at bus-stops to join carpools, not to ride the bus. Blacks who owned cars offered rides. Taxis driven by blacks were offering ten cent fares, equivalent to a bus ticket. Some whites were driving their domestic servants or employees to work. Many walked or rode bikes. Around 17,000 blacks refused to ride the bus that day.
Meanwhile, Rosa Parks was in court. She was found guilty of refusing to obey driver’s orders and was fined $10 plus $4 in court fees.
The MIA’s meeting was scheduled for 7pm that night. People began gathering at 3. Five thousand people packed into every corner of the church that night. King delivered his first speech as a civil rights leader. He urged the audience to act with love. “Love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith,” he said. “There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.”
When asked if they would continue to support a boycott of Montgomery busses, the crowd rose and cheered.
After a few days of boycotting, the city decided to close down many routes to black communities because they were not financially viable. Taxi drivers were penalized if they did not charge a minimum of 45 cents per ride. Social pressure on whites who carpooled with blacks caused many of them to stop doing it.
Black churches purchased cars and organized their own carpools. They took donations of new and used shoes for those who wore theirs out walking. Many took to biking or even horse-drawn transportation.
The White Citizen’s Council doubled in membership during the boycott. Violence was often their tool. In January, the homes of Nixon, King and others were fire-bombed. After one of the incidents, King addressed a crowd from his ruined porch:
If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword’. We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you’. This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.
In February, 89 boycott supporters, including King, were arrested. King was sentenced to 386 days in jail but only spent two weeks. Rather than dissuading the movement, this brought it national attention.
Browder vs. Gayle
Initially, the MIA had modest demands. All they wanted was a permanent line between black and white seating so that no black would have to yield their seat. Facing complete resistance to the idea, they chose to take the fight nationally.
Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed a lawsuit against the mayor of Montgomery on behalf of Aurelia Browder and three other women arrested on Montgomery busses. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. Gray and Langford argued that the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954 should extend desegregation beyond schools and into transportation. June 13 of that year, the court ruled that “the enforced segregation of black and white passengers on motor buses operating in the City of Montgomery violates the Constitution and laws of the United States.”
Montgomery spent most of the year appealing the case. In the meantime, the boycott continued. On December 17, the court upheld the ruling. The MIA met and voted to end the boycott. On December 20, 1956, 381 days after Rosa Parks' arrest, King led the community proudly back onto the city busses. They sat where they pleased.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott struck a major blow against segregation in America. Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr solidified their positions. A blue-print was drawn for how to fight the system without violence, even when the establishment was not afraid to use violence on you.
The African American population saw it could win: one victory at a time.
- Photo of Rosa Parks in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
- Photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: DeMarsico, Dick, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons