The Montgomery Bus Boycott: December 5, 1955 – December 26, 1956 Introduction:Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a 13-month mass protest that ended with the US Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. The Montgomery Improvement Association [MIA] coordinated the boycott, and named a brand new minister in Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as president. The bus boycott demonstrated the success of nonviolent protests and served as a model for other peaceful campaigns in the south to put an end to Jim Crow and the injustice of segregation.
It all began…
December 1, 1955. The Christmas shopping season was just starting in Montgomery, Alabama. A forty-three year old seamstress who worked at Montgomery Fair Department Store had finished a busy day of pinning hems, tucking in waistlines, and carrying heavy piles of dresses. She was leaving her job to go home for the day. She was tired, “When I left work that evening and came out of the store. I had noticed a Cleveland Avenue bus that was quite crowded, and when I got on I wanted to be as comfortable as I could, so I didn’t take that bus.” Instead, Rosa Parks waited for the next bus and the history of the Civil Rights Movement in America was changed forever!
On this fateful December first, Rosa Parks embarked on the second Cleveland Avenue bus. She sat in row eleven, never suspecting what would happen next. She described, “I had a little pain across my neck and shoulders from using the press at work…when I got to the Negro section in the back it was well filled… there was one vacant seat in the middle section...we could use that as long as no white people wanted the seats.” So Parks sat in row eleven with four other black people.
In time the bus filled up. A white man needed a seat. The bus driver, James Blake, told the four to move. No one moved. He addressed them again, “You all better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats.”Three moved, but not Parks. She remained. Blake threatened, “If you don’t stand up, I’m going to have you arrested.” According to Parks, “The rule was that if the front of the bus filled up and one white person came to sit in the middle…we would all have to get up and stand in the back.” But Parks was tired; tired from work; tired from oppression. She refused to move and was arrested.
Parks asked her arresting officer, “ ‘Why do you push us around?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but the law is the law and you are under arrest.’” By refusing to give up her seat, Parks took a courageous stand against segregation laws in her city and sparked an inferno of change that began with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The Law said…
In Montgomery in 1955, black and white people rode public city buses daily as a regular mode of transportation. Two-thirds of these riders were African Americans. In order to ride these buses, the Montgomery City Code of 1938 [a Jim Crow law] outlined specific rules for seating based on race. The code read: “Every person operating a bus line in the city shall provide equal but separate accommodations for white people and Negroes on his buses.” The Cleveland Avenue bus was no exception to this rule. White people sat in the front of the bus and black people sat in the back. On this particular bus, row eleven was the middle or neutral section. Blacks were allowed to sit in this area if the black section was full, as long as no white person sat there or needed a seat. If a white person needed the seat in the neutral section, blacks occupying the row had to get up and stand in the back if the seats in back were full.
It was also understood [a Jim Crow etiquette norm] that all blacks paid their fares to the bus driver in the front of the bus but had to step out and go to the back bus door and enter through that door. No blacks could walk through the white section of the bus.
The Boycott begins…
E.D. Nixon, of the Montgomery NAACP, heard that Parks was arrested. She was the NAACP secretary when he served as its president. When he found out that Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, he posted bail. He asked her if she would be willing to help the cause of freedom. He said, "Mrs. Parks, with your permission we can break down segregation on the bus with your case.” She agreed.
Plans for a one-day boycott went into action. Handouts urged Negroes to stay off the city buses on Monday, Parks' court date. On Friday morning, students delivered boycott fliers around the city to the black neighborhoods. Some ministers agreed to spread word of the boycott through their Sunday sermons. If the boycott succeeded, a vote would be taken to extend it.
Young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church minister, said, "if we could get 60% cooperation the protest would be a success." On Monday, buses were empty. The group met again that afternoon and decided to call themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). King was elected president. Before the vote, some ministers wanted to end it as a one-day success. But Nixon spoke out: “What's the matter with you people? Here you have been living off the sweat of these washerwomen all these years and you have never done anything for them. Now you have a chance to pay them back, and you're too damn scared to stand on your feet and be counted! The time has come when you men is going to have to learn to be grown men or scared boys.”
The MIA let the people vote on whether or not to continue the boycott at the mass meeting that night. There, the decision was unanimous. The boycott would continue.