Montgomery Bus Boycott

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Author: Emily Hess
Editors: Nikki L. M. Brown and Barry M. Stentiford
Date: 2008
The Jim Crow Encyclopedia
From: The Jim Crow Encyclopedia(Vol. 2. )
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Series: Greenwood Milestones in African American History
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 545

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.

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Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It

The black Women's Political Council had been planning the boycott of Montgomery City Lines for months, but the plans had been known publicly for the past three days. The idea itself been entertained for years. Almost daily some black man, woman, or child had had an unpleasant experiences on the bus and told other members of the family about it at the supper table or around the open fireplace or stove. These stories were repeated to the neighbors, who re-told them in club meetings or the ministers of large church congregations.

At first the ministers would soothe the anger of the congregations with recommendations of prayer, with promises the God would “make the rough ways smooth,” and with exhortations to “have patience and wait upon the Lord.”

The member had been patient and had waited upon the Lord, but the rough ways had gotten rougher rather than smoother. As the months stretched into years, the encounters with some of the bus drivers grew more numerous and more intolerable.

Very little or nothing tangible had ever been done on the part of the darker race to prevent continuous abuse on city transit lines, except to petition the company and the City Commission for better conditions. Ten years before, when Mrs. Geneva Johnson, in the latest of a long string of similar incidents, was arrested for not having correct change and “talking back” to the driver when he upbraided her, nothing was done. Charged with disorderly conduct, she paid the fine and help on riding. A representation of Negro men complained the bus company about the matter and about other mistreatments as well, but nothing came of it.

During the next few years, Mrs. Vila White and Miss Katie Wingf ield were arrested, as well as two children visiting from New Jersey. All had committee the same offense-sitting in the front seats reserved for whites. The children were a sister and brother, twn and twelve years old, respectively, who had been accustomed to rising integrated transportation. They got on the bus and sat down buy a white man and a boy. The white youngster told the older black youth to get up from beside him. The youngster refused. The driver commanded them to move, but the children refused. The driver again commanded them to move, but the children continued to sit where they were. They were not in the habit of getting up out of their seats on a public vehicle to give them to somebody else. The police were called, and the two children were arrested. Relatives paid their fines, sent the children home, and the case became history. People kept on riding the bus, and in all probability, those two children carried and will continue to carry that bitter experience with them forever.

Three years later, in 1952, a white bus driver and a Negro man exchanged words over the dime the passenger put into the slot. The Negro man, Brooks, was not afraid, for he had been drinking. He never quavered when the driver abused him with words and accused him of not putting the money into the meter box of the bus. Instead, he stood his ground and dispute the driver. The “bracer” gave him confidence to confidence to stand there, and to sit down, and to talk back in his own defense.

What followed was never explained fully, but the driver called the police, and when the police came they shot and killed Brooks as he got off the bus. Newspaper reports stated that the coroner had ruled the case justifiable homicide because the man had resisted arrest. Many black Montgomerians felt that Brooks was intoxicated and had gotten “out of his place” with the white bus driver. Others wondered if any man, drunk or sober, had to be killed because of one dime, one bus fare. Each had his own thoughts on the matter, but kept on riding the bus.

In 1953, Mrs. Epsie Worthy got on a bus at a transfer point from another bus, and the driver demanded an additional fare. He refused to take the transfer. Rather than pay again, the woman decided that she did not have to go far and would walk the rest of the way. The driver would not be daunted. He wanted another fare, whether she rode or got off, and insisted upon it. Words followed as the woman alighted from the vehicle. She was not quite quick enough, for by the time she was safe on mother earth, the driver was upon her, beating her with his hands. She defended herself, fighting back with all her might. For a few minutes, there was a “free-for-all,” as she gave as much as she took. But in the end she was the loser, for when the police were summoned, she was taken to jail and fined fifty-two dollars for disorderly conduct.

Source: Jo Ann Gibson Robinson, The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), 20-22.

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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.

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.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3256100189