The Montgomery bus boycott

September 28, 2012

Marlene Martin tells the story of Black Montgomery's struggle against segregation--a mass movement of African Americans that launched the modern civil rights era.

ROSA PARKS is known the world over for sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott with her courageous refusal to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man in 1955. So, too, is Martin Luther King, Jr., then a recently appointed minister in Montgomery, who played a leading role in the boycott movement.

But less is known about the 50,000 other African Americans of Montgomery who, over the course of more than a year, participated in the struggle to desegregate the city buses in Alabama's second-largest city.

The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is not just about the actions of its leaders, but about a mass movement that depended on the determination and unity of tens of thousands of people to challenge nearly a century of Jim Crow segregation.

Montgomery is rightly known as the birthplace of the civil rights movement. This wasn't the first time someone stood up against segregation, but it was the first mass upsurge of Southern Blacks against the racist system of American apartheid in the postwar period. It was a long and difficult fight, but through it, African Americans found a new sense of themselves and what they could accomplish--and they gave a glimpse of the great struggles to come.

The History of Black America

THE JIM Crow system of segregation in the U.S. South--enforced by the business and political power structure--ensured that African Americans endured second-class status in every aspect of their lives.

In Montgomery, the median income for Blacks was only half of that for whites. Jobs in industry were so hard to find that a large portion of the Black population--about half of men and two-thirds of women--were employed as domestic workers.

The daily humiliations and indignities suffered by African Americans were especially evident every time they boarded city buses. Blacks had to pay at the front of the bus and then get off to board at the back--frequently, the bus would take off before the person made it to the back to re-board.

Seating was segregated--the front section was for whites and the back was for Blacks. If more whites got on the bus, Blacks had to give up their seats. But if more Blacks were on the bus than whites, which was usually the case, Blacks could never sit in the first rows reserved for whites. So Montgomery's buses would often be crowded with Black women traveling home from work, standing with bags in their hands, next empty white seats.

One account in Jo Ann Gibson Robinson's memoir The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It described the typical behavior of racist drivers:

[T]here was the mother who boarded the bus with two small babes in her arms. There were no whites on the predominantly Negro bus, so she tenderly placed her two infants on the empty seat, while she dug into her pocketbook for a dime. The driver demanded in a horrified voice that the "black, dirty brats" instantly be removed from the reserved seat. The alarmed mother dropped her dime into the meter and grabbed for her tiny tots.

Not in time, however. For at that same moment, the operator lunged the vehicle forward with a terrific jerk, throwing the two small ones into the aisle. Sympathetic passengers picked up the howling infants and gave them to the mother, whose face was bathed in tears. In deep humiliation and fear for the physical condition of her children, she got off at the next stop.

In another instance, a Black man who said he had paid his fare refused to get off the bus when a driver claimed he hadn't paid. The police were called--they dragged the man off the bus, then shot and killed him. The killing was determined to be "justified."

Bus abuse stories were plentiful, and Blacks had no recourse. Complaints made to City Hall or to the bus company fell on deaf ears.

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a longtime activist and secretary of the local NACCP chapter, was traveling home on a crowded bus. As more whites boarded, Parks was told to get up from her seat so a white man could sit down. She refused and was arrested.

Many histories say that Parks refused to get up that day because she was tired. But Parks herself said she was no more tired on this day than any other--and that the only thing she was tired of was "taking it."

While her action on December 1 wasn't planned, it wasn't really spontaneous either, as she explained: "I had almost a life history of being rebellious about being mistreated because of my color. This is what I wanted to know: when and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings?"

This question would be answered over the coming year. After Parks was arrested, organizers in the Woman's Political Council (WPC) put out a call to boycott the buses the following Monday. Parks had been arrested on a Thursday, and so over the following days, tens of thousands of flyers were handed out to Montgomery's African American population.

E.D. Nixon, president of the local NAACP and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, pressed Montgomery's Black ministers--including the 26-year-old Martin Luther King, recently appointed to his first church--to get behind the action. The boycott was announced at Sunday sermons.

WHILE WORD of the boycott had saturated the African American community, no one knew for sure whether people would stay off the buses.

In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King described getting up at the break of dawn on Monday to see if anyone was on the buses:

I jumped in my car and for almost an hour I cruised down every major street...I saw no more than eight Negro passengers riding the buses. By this time I was jubilant. Instead of the 60 percent cooperation we had hoped for, it was becoming apparent that we had reached almost 100 percent. A miracle had taken place. The once dormant and quiescent Negro community was now fully awake.

That night, a meeting was held at the Holt Street Baptist Church to decide what should happen now. Earlier in the day, Parks was found guilty of breaking the law for refusing to give up her seat. Would the boycott continue?

A reporter who attended the meeting was stunned when he arrived to see cars lined up as far as the eye could see. Several thousand people had turned out, overflowing the church. The meeting decided to continue the boycott, with attendees forming committees to organize different aspects of the struggle--most importantly, a transportation committee to help the city's Black residents get back and forth to work.

The organization of transportation was an ingenious example of grassroots action at work. A plan for pick-up and drop-off spots plugged in volunteers to drive their own cars or donated ones, getting Black residents around the city.

Of course, a lot of people did a lot of walking--but it was with a sense of pride. As one elderly Black woman said, "Since I been walking, my feet are tired, but my soul's rested."

Meanwhile, the power structure of Montgomery did everything it could to break the movement.

Early on, city officials tried to hoodwink Black residents by claiming that the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), formed by community figures like King and Nixon to lead the struggle, had agreed to end the boycott. People woke up to read on the front pages that a settlement had been reached with three members of the MIA.

This was a lie--none of the three were MIA members. Fortunately, activists were able to expose the lie and keep the boycott going.

When cab drivers offered to help the boycott by offering rides at the same fare as the bus cost, city officials announced that any cab driver charging less than the 45-cent minimum fare would be prosecuted. When churches purchased station wagons to be used in the boycott, insurance for the vehicles was canceled four times in four months before an English company agreed to provide coverage.

Then there was outright harassment. According to Jo Ann Robinson:

Hundreds of Black motorists were stopped, searched, questioned and given tickets for traffic violations. People who had never been accosted by policemen before were declared guilty of speeding or failing to recognize red lights, caution lights or stop signs. I myself received 17 traffic tickets for all kinds of trumped-up charges.

King said that his phone rang constantly with death threats, and he received 40 hate letters a day. His home was bombed on January 30--E.D. Nixon's house was bombed two days later. A well-known white preacher who worked on the boycott had his car vandalized. When another white, Will Sheehan, wrote to the local newspaper in support of the boycott, his phone rang nonstop for the next four days. "I've never got called a son of a bitch so many times in my life," he said.

The harassment and violence unleashed against the boycott movement was an object lesson for activists. As King later wrote:

Feeling that our demands were moderate, I had assumed that they would be granted with little question: I had believed that the privileged would give up their privileges on request. This experience, however, taught me a lesson. I came to see that no one gives up his privileges without strong resistance. I saw further that the underlying purpose of segregation was oppress and exploit the segregated, not simply to keep them apart.

THE KEY to overcoming the obstacles was the mass involvement of Montgomery's Black population--and the organization that kept it mobilized.

Thousands of people attended biweekly mass meetings over the course of the yearlong struggle. These meetings served as a place to disseminate information, coordinate actions and give people strength for the fight ahead. Martin Luther King proved himself as a mass leader at these meetings--in his speeches, he was able to underline the accomplishments of the struggle, provide a vision of how to advance the fight, and to place the boycott movement in the wider context of the struggle for equality and freedom.

But ultimately, the actions of masses of African Americans were why the Montgomery Bus Boycott won. This was not a legal battle, fought in the courtroom on behalf of the people, like the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the schools. The success or failure of the boycott depended on the actions of the 50,000 Black residents of Montgomery.

As Jack Bloom wrote in Class, Race and the Civil Rights Movement:

Mass action made Blacks participants in the struggle. They came no longer to sit back and watch others do something for them, but became the authors of their own transformation. There was room for everyone to play his or her part, and doing so deepened commitment, as well as pride and self-respect.

It would take half a year before a federal district court ruled that Alabama's segregation law for buses was unconstitutional, and another half a year before the Supreme Court upheld that decision. The city government passed a new ordinance, and the boycott came to a victorious end on December 20, 1956.

On the surface, Jim Cow segregation seemed to be about keeping the races apart, but it was ultimately about keeping one race down--oppressed and subjugated. The Montgomery Bus Boycott shattered that image of inequality, thanks to the power of ordinary people organizing collectively. It was a turning point in the struggle for civil rights that gave inspiration for the battles yet to come.

E.D. Nixon captured the impact of the victory when he wrote of the morning that he prepared to take his first ride on an integrated bus:

When I saw Rosa climb aboard and look around, her eyes glistening like I knew she, too, had been crying, I thought it was gonna come on me again, but it didn't. Her eyes caught mine, and we knew what we'd done, and we both grinned real big and didn't say nothing. We just rode. It was the best ride I ever had in my life, just riding through downtown and out to the west and back again, going nowhere but feeling like we was heading to heaven.

First published at on February 9, 2012.

Further Reading

From the archives