When Rosa Parks refused on the afternoon of Dec. 1, 1955, to give up her bus seat so that a white man could sit, it is unlikely that she fully realized the forces she had set into motion and the controversy that would soon swirl around her. Other black women had similarly refused to give up their seats on public buses and had even been arrested, including two young women earlier that same year in Montgomery, Ala. But this time the outcome was different.
Unlike those earlier incidents, Rosa Parks “courageous refusal to bow to an unfair law sparked a crucial chapter in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. ,”I didn’t get on the bus with the intention of being arrested,” she often said later. “I got on the bus with the intention of going home.” Pressures had been building in Montgomery for some time to deal with public transportation practices that treated blacks as second-class citizens. Those pressures were increased when a 15-year-old girl, Claudette Colvin, was arrested on March 2, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white person.
Colvin did not violate the city bus policy by not relinquishing her seat. She was not sitting in the front seats reserved for whites, and there was no other place for her to sit. Even under the double standards of the bus seating policy at the time, blacks sitting behind the white reserved section in a bus were only required to give up their seats to whites if there was another seat available for them. But despite the apparent legality of her refusal to give up her seat, Colvin was still convicted.
Some of the city’s black leaders thought that they had missed an opportunity for more serious action following the Colvin arrest. So when Parks was arrested a few months later, the stage was already set for a boycott. Responding to the arrest of Parks was E.D. Nixon, a Pullman train porter who led the state chapter of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Nixon had worked for better conditions for blacks for decades. He organized the Montgomery Voters League in 1943 and served as president of both the state and local chapters of the NAACP. With the help of white attorney Clifford Durr, Nixon bailed Mrs. Parks out of jail on the evening of Dec. 1. He then persuaded her to allow her case to be used to challenge the cityÍs bus segregation policy. Many of the most significant decisions influencing not only the boycott, but also the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, were made behind the scenes between the time of Parks’ arrest late that Thursday and the historic flood of events the following Monday.
After leaving the Parks home, Nixon talked on the telephone with Alabama State College professor Jo Ann Robinson, who had conferred with attorney Fred Gray. They agreed that a long-term legal challenge of bus segregation should be underscored by a one-day boycott of the bus system. That evening Nixon and Robinson went about setting the boycott into motion.
Nixon spent the late evening talking on the telephone and drawing up a list of names of people whose support he felt was essential, including many of the more prominent black leaders of Montgomery.
Robinson, who was president of the Women’s Political Council, a group of black women who lobbied the city and state on black issues, had been pushing for a bus boycott for months. She saw an opportunity and took it. In her memoir, Robinson recalls some notes she made that evening: “The Women’s Political Council will not wait for Mrs. Parks’s consent to call for a boycott of city buses. On Friday, December 2, 1955, the women of Montgomery will call for a boycott to take place on Monday, December 5.” By around midnight, Robinson had written a flier calling for a boycott. She called a colleague at Alabama State, who agreed to let her use a mimeograph machine to print copies of the flier. With his help and the aid of two of her students, Robinson spent the early morning hours of Dec. 2 duplicating, cutting and bundling the flier. They finished about 4 a.m., only about 10 hours after the arrest of Parks.
The flier read: “Another Negro 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 Negroes, 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.” After her class Friday morning, Robinson called other members of the WPC to discuss distributing the flier. During the remainder of the day, bundles of leaflets were dropped off at black schools and businesses where blacks were likely to congregate.
Robinson and the WPC essentially took the decision about a boycott of the Montgomery bus system out of the hands of more conservative black leaders and left them no real option but to go along with at least a one-day version of it.
Nixon spent that Friday morning calling to recruit those whose leadership he felt was essential. Among them were the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King, after some hesitation, agreed to participate. As Nixon telephoned leaders, they in turn contacted others. A meeting was arranged for King’s church.
At that meeting, attended by about 50 people, the decision was made that a mass meeting to which all blacks in the city would be invited would be held Monday night, Dec. 5, at Holt Street Baptist Church. King led a committee which added language about the mass meeting to the WPC flier and distributed another 7,000 copies that Saturday.
Monday, Dec. 5, was an historic day. The boycott began, Rosa Parks was tried in city court and convicted, the initial meeting of what would become the Montgomery Improvement Association was held, and a mass meeting of black citizens made history.
That Monday dawned cold but clear. Morning buses that normally would be crowded with blacks heading to work throughout the city were essentially empty.
Instead, many blacks gathered near the bus stops, waiting for rides. Interestingly, many of those rides came from whites whose primary interest was getting their domestic employees to their homes or other workers to their places of business. Other blacks rode Negro taxis, with many drivers giving reduced fares that day. Thousands more walked to work and school. Participation far exceeded the best hopes of the boycott leaders.
Meanwhile that Monday, Rosa Parks was appearing in court.
Like Claudette Colvin before her, Parks had not technically violated the bus ordinance. Despite that fact, and the constitutional issues raised by her attorney, Fred Gray, the city judge found Parks guilty and fined her $10 plus $4 in court costs. That decision would further stir the black community to action.
In midafternoon, 16 to 18 people gathered in the pastor’s study of the Mt. Zion AME Zion Church to discuss strategies. These ad hoc leaders of the movement agreed that a new organization was needed to lead the boycott effort if it was to continue. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy suggested the name “Montgomery Improvement Association,” and it was adopted. Discussions of who would be the best spokesman for the boycott effort had been part of the give and take throughout the weekend. Gray and Robinson recalled in their books on the boycott that they had discussed Robinson’s minister, Martin Luther King Jr., with E.D. Nixon. Knowing that there already existed cliques in the black community and resentments over roles, there was a consensus that a new face was necessary to lead the MIA. That person turned out to be King. In later years, various participants claimed to have been the person who put King’s name forward. Attorney Gray reported that blacks started gathering as early as 3 p.m. for the mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church scheduled for 7 p.m., where King was set to give the opening address, his first as a civil rights leader.
Gray later wrote that he had prepared two resolutions for that evening: One in case that day’s boycott had failed, which called for negotiations with city officials to resolve differences, and another in case the boycott was a success, calling for all black citizens of Montgomery to not ride the buses until they were desegregated. The first resolution was not needed.
King’s speech stirred the thousand or more people packed into every corner of the church. He urged them to use Christian love as a tool to protect their rights: ,”But I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love. Love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” Buoyed by the success of that day’s boycott and by King’s rousing speech, the audience rose and cheered when asked to support a resolution to continue the boycott.
The historic Montgomery Bus Boycott had begun. It would last for 381 days, a span during which life for virtually every black Montgomerian changed dramatically.
Researchers estimate that some 17,000 blacks took part in the boycott initially, although the numbers quickly grew because of action by the bus system itself. Shortly after the boycott ended, King claimed that 42,000 blacks took part.
A few days after the boycott began, bus officials asked the City Commission for permission to close routes to many of the primary black communities, arguing that the boycott had made service to those areas no longer financially attractive. So in those parts of town, even the handful of blacks who might have wanted to use the buses could not do so.
For the first few days of the boycott black taxi companies helped transport former bus riders. Boycott leaders persuaded most of these companies to charge only 10 cents per ride during the hours most blacks were going to and coming from work. But a few days into the boycott, city officials started to enforce a previously ignored city ordinance that set minimum fares at 45 cents. That priced taxi rides on a daily basis out of the reach of many working-class blacks. Also, at the urging of black churches, blacks who owned cars gave rides to friends and neighbors.
Early in the boycott many white citizens also helped provide transportation to and from work for their black employees. But over time, the number of whites providing transportation dwindled under pressure from others in the white community.
Boycott leaders quickly realized that their plans for a more organized alternative transportation system would have to be put into high gear if the boycott were to succeed long term.
Churches bought cars and station wagons specifically for the transportation system. Pick-up and delivery points were designated around the city and routes established. The city police harassed the system by enforcing laws against crowding and a variety of minor traffic violations, but it succeeded anyway.
The car pool system soon developed into an efficient, cost-effective means of transportation.
As the boycott wore on, intimidation tactics took various forms. The most sweeping official action designed to deter boycott leaders came in February 1956, when the Montgomery grand jury indicted 89 boycott leaders — including King, Parks, Abernathy and most of the other participating black ministers. The charges were based on a 1921 state statute that barred boycotts without ,”just cause.” Those indicted were arrested over the next few days, booked and released on bond. But as official tactics failed to discourage the boycott, unofficial intimidation soon took a more dangerous turn. In January, the parsonage in which King and his family lived was bombed. Coretta Scott King and the Kings’ two-year-old daughter narrowly escaped injury. King stood on his damaged porch and persuaded an angry crowd of blacks, some of them armed, not to respond with violence. The next night, E.D. Nixon’s home was also bombed.
In August, the home of white Lutheran minister Robert Graetz also was bombed. Graetz, whose church was all-black, was probably targeted because he was the only white member of the board of the Montgomery Improvement Association. His home was later bombed again.
Even past the end of the boycott, the violence continued. In addition to bombings, King’s home was shot into. After the boycott came to a close, snipers shot into buses in black communities, at one point hitting a young black woman, Rosa Jordan, in the legs. Her injuries were not life-threatening.
The worst single night of violence occurred on Jan. 10, 1957, a few weeks after the end of the boycott and segregated seating on buses. Four black churches and two homes were bombed, including the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s church and parsonage.
,”Dr. King used to talk about the reality that some of us were going to die and that if any of us were afraid to die we really shouldn’t be there,” Graetz said. The intimidation tactics failed to significantly deter any black boycotters. Instead, for the most part, they spurred black Montgomerians to greater efforts.
In an analysis of the Montgomery Bus Boycott printed in the journal ,”Liberation” in 1957, King wrote: “Because the mayor and city authorities cannot admit to themselves that we (black Montgomerians) have changed, every move they have made has inadvertently increased the protest and united the Negro community.” Just days after the beginning of the bus boycott, boycott leaders began discussing the need for a federal lawsuit to challenge city and state bus segregation laws. On Jan. 30, 1956, (the day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home was bombed in the early morning hours) the executive board of the MIA decided to sue in federal court. Two days later, attorneys Fred Gray and Charles Langford filed a lawsuit on behalf of four female plaintiffs. It was known as Browder v. Gayle. (Browder was a Montgomery housewife; Gayle the mayor of Montgomery.)
Gray recalls in his memoir, ,”Bus Ride to Justice,” that discussions with MIA leaders about a federal lawsuit began about two weeks after the start of the boycott. Gray quickly began research for the lawsuit, consulting several sympathetic attorneys, including his friend and mentor Clifford Durr. He also consulted with NAACP legal counsels Robert Carter and Thurgood Marshall, who would later become U.S. solicitor general and a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Gray later wrote that he felt a lawsuit was crucial to bolstering the commitment of those who were conducting the boycott, giving them hope that they could prevail even if city officials stood firm in the face of the boycott itself. Time and events proved Gray’s thinking was correct.
It is ironic that in the early days of the boycott, when MIA officials were still negotiating with officials of the city and the bus line, their demands stopped far short of ending segregation on city buses. Instead, those negotiations focused on ending the practices of forcing blacks to stand so that whites could sit, such as in the case of Rosa Parks, or of forcing blacks to leave seats in the front of the black section of a bus so that whites could fill them if the white section was full. The boycott leadership also sought the hiring of some black bus drivers and more courteous treatment of black riders by bus drivers.
If city officials had given in to these modest demands, they would have derailed the boycott and quite likely have caused the focus of the Civil Rights Movement to have shifted to some city other than Montgomery. Indeed, business interests in Montgomery, supported by the Montgomery Advertiser’s editorial page, supported some form of compromise, as did the majority of the leadership of the MIA.
But city officials, pressured by the militant and racist White Citizens Councils, refused to budge. In the early weeks of the boycott, then-Mayor W.A. Gayle declared: ,”We are going to hold our stand. We are not going to be a part of any program that will get Negroes to ride the buses again at the price of the destruction of our heritage and way of life.” The intransigence on the part of city officials prompted MIA leaders to widen their demands when they went to federal court.
,”We concluded that if we were ever going to get anywhere, we would have to go to the federal court,” Gray said. ,”So once we got to that point, we didn’t ask the federal court for this (original) point we (had) approached the city with. We filed to end segregation.” The plaintiffs in the case were Aurelia Browder, a housewife; Mrs. Susie McDonald, a black woman in her seventies; Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old arrested in March 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat; and Mary Louise Smith, an 18-year-old arrested under similar circumstances in October 1955. The four women shared the distinction of being black women who had been treated unfairly on city buses because of their race.
The Rosa Parks case was not used as the basis for the federal lawsuit for several reasons. As a criminal statute, it would have to wend its way through the state criminal appeals process before a federal appeal could be filed. City and state officials could have delayed a final rendering for years. In addition, it is possible that the only outcome would have been that the conviction of Parks would be vacated, with no lasting impact on bus segregation.
A hearing on Browder v. Gayle was held in Montgomery on May 11, 1956. The plaintiffs outlined their harsh treatment on city buses before a panel of three federal judges: Appeals Court Judge Richard T. Rives, Montgomery District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr., and Birmingham District Judge Seybourn H. Lynne.
The attorneys for the black plaintiffs argued that the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas applied not only to public education, but to public transportation as well.
On June 5, the special panel ruled two to one in favor of the black plaintiffs. Rives’ majority opinion in which Johnson concurred held that the 1954 Brown ruling, which had overturned the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ,”separate but equal” doctrine, applied not only to public schools but to other forms of legalized segregation, including public transportation. The three-judge panel delayed enforcement of its ruling until the city had exhausted its appeals. Because of that delay, the MIA leadership felt the boycott should continue.
As the federal case wound on, MIA attorneys had their hands full staving off attempts in state courts by the city to end the boycott, including the prosecution of boycott leaders for violating the state’s anti-boycott law and an effort to enjoin the operation of the MIA’s car pool. On Nov. 13, the day the city got a state court injunction to shut down the car pool, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Browder v. Gayle case. As soon as new mass meetings could be arranged, several thousands blacks voted to end the boycott when the high court’s enforcement order was served. That occurred on Dec. 20, 1956, and black Montgomerians — led by King — returned to the city buses the next day. The 381-day boycott of Montgomery buses finally had ended. Not only could the black residents of Montgomery now ride city buses as equals, thanks to their efforts so could many other black citizens throughout the nation.
Used by permission courtesy of: Office of Information Technology – Media Production Group Auburn University, AL 36849 (formerly Auburn University Telecommunications/ETV) and Alabama State University circa 1982 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/Producer/Director-Tom C. Lenard