King Encyclopedia
Montgomery Bus Boycott

Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott was an eleven-month mass protest that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that public bus segregation is unconstitutional. The Montgomery Improvement Association coordinated the boycott, and its president, Martin Luther King, Jr., became a prominent civil rights leader as international attention focused on Montgomery. The bus boycott demonstrated the potential for nonviolent mass protest to successfully challenge racial segregation and served as an example for other southern campaigns that followed.

The roots of the bus boycott began years before Rosa Parks's arrest. The Women's Political Council (WPC), a group of black professionals founded in 1946, had already turned their attention to Jim Crow practices on the Montgomery city buses. In a meeting with Mayor W. A. Gayle in March 1954, the council's members outlined their wishes: a city law that would allow blacks to sit from back toward front and whites from front toward back until the bus was filled, a decree that black individuals not be made to pay at the front of the bus but go to the rear to enter, and a promise that buses stop at every corner in black residential areas as they did in white communities. When the meeting failed to produce any meaningful change, WPC president Jo Ann Robinson reiterated the council's requests in a 21 May letter to Mayor Gayle, asking him to "Please consider this plan, and if possible, act favorably upon it, for even now plans are being made to ride less, or not at all, on our buses."

On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks refused a bus driver's demand to give up her seat to a white man, resulting in her arrest. Robinson and the WPC responded by calling for a one-day protest of the city's buses on 5 December. They prepared a series of leaflets at Alabama State College and organized groups to distribute them throughout the black community. E. D. Nixon, then leader of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told Parks that her case that would launch a massive boycott. She agreed, and on 5 December, ninety percent of Montgomery's black citizens stayed off the buses.

Following the initial success of the boycott, Nixon and Robinson arranged a meeting with the city's ministers to discuss the possibility of extending the boycott to a long-term campaign. During this meeting, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed, and Martin Luther King, Jr., a young minister new to Montgomery, was named president. Parks recalls, "The advantage of having Dr. King as president was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil rights work that he hadn't been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies." The MIA voted to continue the boycott and issued a formal list of demands: courteous treatment by the bus operator; first-come, first-serve seating for all, with blacks seating from the rear and whites from the front; and black bus operators on predominately black routes. At the first meeting of the MIA, King said to the black community, "I want to say that in all of our actions we must stick together. Unity is the great need of the hour, and if we are united we can get many of the things that we not only desire but which we justly deserve."

Montgomery's black residents stayed off of the buses through 1956, as city officials and white citizens sought to defeat the boycott. Black taxi drivers were penalized if they charged less than forty-five cents, as they had begun charging ten cents—the regular bus fare—in support of the boycott. In addition, the homes of both King and Ralph Abernathy were bombed, and the membership of the local White Citizen's Council doubled. City officials obtained injunctions against the boycott in February 1956 and arrested 156 protesters under a 1921 law prohibiting the hindrance of a bus. King was tried and convicted on the charge and ordered to pay $1000 or serve 386 days in jail. Despite this resistance, the boycott continued. As King later described, "We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So, in a quite dignified manner, we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery."

Under increasing pressure to address the conflict in Montgomery, the federal district court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional on 4 June 1956 (Browder v. Gayle). The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling, and on 21 December 1956, the boycott officially ended. King's role in the bus boycott garnered international attention, and the MIA's tactics of combining mass nonviolent protest with a Christian tone became the model for challenging segregation in the South, a strategy highlighted by King in Stride Toward Freedom, his 1958 memoir of the boycott.


Sources

Clayborne Carson, Stewart Burns, Susan Carson, Peter Holloran & Dana L.H. Powell, eds. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Volume III: Birth of a New Age, December 1955–December 1956, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997)

Mary Far Burks, "Trailblazers: Women in the Montgomery Bus Boycott," in Vicki L. Crawford, Jacqueline Anne Rouse and Barbara Woods, eds. Women in the Civil Rights Movement, (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1990)

Clayborne Carson, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., (New York: Warner Books, 1998)

Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, (New York: The Free Press, 1994)

Rosa Parks, "'Tired of Giving In' : The Launching of the Montgomery Bus Boycott," in Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin, eds. Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement, ( New York: New York University Press, 2001)

Howell Raines, My Soul is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered, (New York: Puttnam, 1977)

Jo Anne Robinson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women who Started it, (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1987)

 

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