Montgomery Bus Boycott
Starting in December 1955, the African American community of Montgomery, Alabama, boycotted the city bus system for over a year. Demanding equal and fair treatment, blacks refused to ride until their requests were met. Organized by the Women's Political Council (WPC) and Montgomery's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branch, this boycott is often referred to as the beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
In the 1950s in Montgomery, the city bus system was segregated. African Americans were not hired as drivers, rode in the back of the bus, and were expected to surrender their seat at a white passenger's request. Black passengers entered the front of the bus to pay the fee, exited the bus, and reentered at the back entrance. At times, bus drivers would leave black passengers standing at the sidewalk after paying the bus fee. Although 75 percent of passengers were African American, they were constant victims of public degradation and humiliation.
For several years, the WPC, led by Jo Ann Robinson, and Montgomery's NAACP branch, formerly led by E. D. Nixon, had discussed the inequalities of the city bus system and possible resolutions. In 1954, Robinson sent a letter to Montgomery mayor W. A. Gayle requesting the buses' Jim Crow practices be put to an end and warned of a potential boycott if the demands were not met. Gayle paid no attention to Robinson's warning.
Even though the WPC had been organizing a possible boycott, the challenge of rallying the entire black community remained. A successful boycott required full participation. Due to fear of losing jobs, harassment, and racial violence, few African Americans publicly acknowledged their discontent of second-class citizenship. These organizations waited for the right person who would stand up against the ways of the south. That day came on Thursday, December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks stepped on one of the city buses. It had been a long day of work, the bus was almost completely full, and Parks sat in the first row of the black section. At the next stop several white passengers entered the bus. A white male wanted Parks's seat. Parks refused. The bus driver ordered her to move or he would call the authorities. Parks did not move. Parks was arrested, and the inspirational story Nixon and Robinson had waited for arrived. The soft-spoken, respectable Parks served as the perfect symbol to mobilize African Americans for the bus boycott.
Days following the arrest, over 200 volunteers passed out 30,000 flyers calling for a one-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system on Monday, December 5, 1955. The one-day boycott was successful and that evening the black community gathered in Holt Street Baptist Church to decide if the boycott should continue. Thousands attended the meeting. The church overflowed to the outside stairs and sidewalks.
The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was developed to coordinate, support and organization the demonstration. Martin Luther King, Jr., the new preacher in town, was elected MIA's president and chosen to give a speech at the first mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church. With less than an hour to prepare, King delivered a speech that inspired the crowd to vote unanimously to continue the boycott. This speech also marked the beginning of King's role as leader in the Civil Rights Movement.
Through the efforts and sacrifices of the black community, the Montgomery bus boycott lasted 381 days. Boycotters walked to work, established a large car pool system, and ran extensive fund-raisers to finance the car pool system. Even on the coldest of days, some walked as far as 12 miles a day. Only a month after the boycott began, James H. Bagley, the superintendent of the Montgomery City Bus Lines, expressed frustration with the lack of patronage. The bus system was losing close to $400 daily, as expenses greatly outweighed income. Forced to reduce expenses, Bagley cut schedules, fired drivers, and increased the cost of bus fares. However, the movement needed federal legislation to change Jim Crow practices.
On February 1, 1956, NAACP lawyers Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Circuit Court against Alabama and Montgomery's unconstitutional segregation laws. Gray and Langford filed this suit on behalf of five African American women: Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, Jea-netta Reese, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith. Throughout the year, boycott leaders and participants faced much racial violence. Both King's and Nixon's houses were bombed, crosses were burnt on front lawns, and several were arrested for participating in “illegal” boycotts. Through Alabama's state courts, white Montgomery officials successfully made carpooling illegal. Interestingly enough, this state legislation passed the same day the federal court found Alabama's segregation laws unconstitutional.
On December 21, 1956, African Americans boarded the Montgomery city buses and sat where they pleased. This achievement sparked the modern Civil Rrights Movement and heightened racial tensions across the south as more and more blacks demanded freedom.
See also Streetcars and Boycotts .
Further Readings: Burns, Stewart, ed. Daybreak of Freedom: Montgomery Bus Boycott. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997; Robinson, Jo Ann, with David Gar-row. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987; Williams, Donnie, and Wayne Greenhow. The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006.