“We didn’t have any civil rights. It was just a matter of survival, of existing from one day to the next”
- Rosa Parks
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a mass civil rights protest against Montgomery, Alabama’s segregated bus system, during which civil activists and African Americans refused to ride city buses for 381 days. Eventually, this led to a 1956 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring Montgomery’s laws on the segregation of buses unconstitutional.
On March 2, 1955, Claudette Colvin, a high school student in Montgomery, Alabama, boarded the city bus. She was the first person to challenge the segregation of buses by refusing to give up her seat. Colvin was eventually arrested for her refusal and screamed, “It’s my constitutional right,” as the police dragged her out of the bus. The Black representatives planned to protest using Colvin as their leading figure.
However, it was discovered that she was pregnant and deemed an inappropriate symbol for their cause. Claudette is not a much-celebrated figure in the African-American Civil Rights Movement but was a pioneer and instrumental along with three other women (Aurelia S. Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith). In Browder v. Gayle’s case, which ultimately defined segregation on buses as unconstitutional across the states.
Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black seamstress, was a committed Methodist and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). On December 1, 1955, she sat at the front of the ‘colored section’ area on Montgomery's Cleveland Avenue bus while returning home from her job at a local department store. When all the white seats were taken, the driver, J. Fred Blake, ordered four black passengers, including Parks, to vacate their seats to make room for white men. Though the others complied, Parks refused.
The following is an extract is from Douglas Brinkley's 2000 Rosa Parks biography stating the details of the event:
"Are you going to stand up?" the driver demanded.
Rosa Parks looked straight at him and said: "No."
Flustered, and not quite sure what to do, Blake retorted, "Well, I'm going to have you arrested."
And Parks, still sitting next to the window, replied softly, "You may do that."
This conduct subsequently led to her arrest. Once the incident came across Jo Ann Robinson, leader of the Women’s Political Council (WPC), and E.D. Nixon, president of the local NAACP chapter, they began sending flyers to spread awareness about the boycott of the bus system on December 5. They used the arrest to launch the bus boycott to combat the segregated bus policy in the city on the same day as Rosa Parks’ trial in municipal court.
The original flyer stated:
"This is for Monday, December 5, 1955
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 Colbert case that a Negro women 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 busses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don't ride the busses 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 of all buses Monday."
Soon, word of the boycott spread throughout the city. Newspapers like the Montgomery Advertiser, radio, and television reports publicized the event.
On Monday, December 5, 1955, the boycott went into effect. The success of the boycott brought more advocates to try and sustain the boycott indefinitely. A group of local ministers created the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).
The 26-year-old young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr, was elected President of the campaign. His rise to significant prominence in the Civil Rights Movement in America began as he led the boycott. Speaking to an audience of 5,000 black citizens on the first day of the boycott, he said:
“We have no alternative but to protest. For many years we have shown an amazing patience. We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice”
At first, the MIA had no intention of changing the segregation laws. Their primary goal was to implement a first-come, first-seated policy and hire African American drivers to drive through the routes that predominantly African Americans traveled through. This faced massive retaliation.
The city went to extents to avoid fulfilling the demands of these protesters. The police arrested 80 protesters for violating a 1921 law that ‘barred conspiracies to interfere with lawful business without just cause’. White citizens actively tried to dismiss the boycotters by harassing and firing them from their jobs. Along with this, Martin Luther King’s house was bombed.
The African American community withstood this retaliation and continued to show immense solidarity to sustain the boycott. Carpools were organized, and taxi drivers reduced taxi fares significantly to 10 cents for African American riders.
On June 5, 1956, this nonviolent intervention prompted a federal district court to declare segregated bus seats unconstitutional after a federal case against bus segregation was filed by the MIA. The decision was affirmed by the Supreme Court mid-November, and on December 20, 1956, the ruling went into effect.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott holds great significance, and its success has inspired multiple more protests against racial discrimination and unjust segregation in many countries. The movement has since drawn attention to civil rights issues and kickstarted the Civil Rights Movement in America.
Written by Parnika Srivastava