Montgomery Bus Boycott

In the 1950s, segregation laws and city ordinances deemed it a misdemeanor for blacks and whites to intermingle in public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama. This was the law across the South. Violators were promptly arrested and prosecuted under laws established to separate the races. A clear example of this is section 1413 of the Birmingham Racial Segregation Ordinance, which states that:

“Every owner or operator of any jitney, bus or taxi cab in the city shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races by dividing separate vehicles or by clearly indicating or designating by visible markers the area to be occupied by each race in any vehicle in which the two races are permitted to be carried together and by confining each race to occupancy of the area of such vehicle so set apart for it. It shall be unlawful for any person to operate or cause or allow to be operated or to aid in operating for the carriage of white and colored passengers any vehicle not equipped as provided in this section. And it shall be unlawful for any person, contrary to the provisions of this section providing for equal and separate accommodations for the white and colored races, to ride or attempt to ride in a vehicle or a division of a vehicle designated for the race to which such person does not belong. Failure to comply with this section shall be deemed a misdemeanor.”

Knowing that the segregation laws were morally unjust, several unknown and uncelebrated African Americans challenged this legislation by refusing to collaborate with laws that oppressed their humanity. In most instances, violators of segregation laws were jailed without due process. Prior to December 1, 1955—the date of the Montgomery bus boycott— there had been several rebellions against the bus laws. The African American community in Montgomery was not passive and complacent about segregation laws, but they were forced to endure many demeaning episodes before they were able to change the laws. In 1943, Rosa Parks had paid her bus fare in the front of the bus, exited, and then attempted to reenter through the rear door, only to watch the bus drive off, leaving her on the curb. In 1949, a black professor, Jo Ann Robinson, sat in the whites-only front section of an empty bus and was verbally assaulted by the driver and then thrown off the bus. She commenced a strong and silent protest campaign against the system including several letters to Montgomery Mayor W. A. Gayle, informing him of an impending citywide bus boycott. In 1950, Dr. Vernon Johns was forced to give up his seat to a white passenger. These are just a few of the protest actions of African Americans.

The NAACP and its Strategy

With all these protest actions occurring, the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was just waiting for the right “victim” and the right moment to galvanize public anger and sentiment against the bus segregation laws. In 1955, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. NAACP officials thought they had found the perfect symbol, but then it turned out that she was pregnant. Although her pregnancy was not relevant to the segregation issue, a focus on it might have jeopardized the NAACP's ability to win in their protest against the segregation laws.
On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a full bus and took her seat in the black section, in the fifth row of the bus. The first four sections of the bus were designated as the “whites only” section. That section filled up very quickly, leaving a white passenger standing. According to the law, and the ordinance above, whites and blacks were forbidden to occupy the same row. So the bus driver asked all African-Americans in the fifth row to vacate the section. The other three people in the section complied, but Rosa Parks did not. She was summarily arrested.
Rosa Parks had been educated at Alabama State College and became a seamstress. She had completed several workshops and courses in race relations and was a seasoned NAACP secretary and worker who had been active on the Claudette Colvin case. Above all, her record was impeccable. E. D. Nixon, a leader in the African American community, was quite familiar with her and was sure that in Rosa Parks the NAACP had found its “poster figure” against public transport segregation laws. Nixon went to the jail and posted bond for Rosa Parks. He solicited her permission to commence a public campaign against bus segregation, and with her blessing he went to work. The next day, Nixon called the minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as Coretta Scott King recalls in her introduction to The Words of Martin Luther King, “to describe the incident and to urge a boycott of the buses. ‘It's the only way to make the white folk see that we would not take this sort of thing any longer,’ he said. Martin agreed and offered the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church as a meeting place. Over forty leaders from all segments of the black community came to the meeting. They formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), elected Martin president, and organized a boycott starting on December 5.”

The Campaign for Freedom and Respect

This was to be the beginning of a painful, year-long campaign to end bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. The consequences were quite severe for the African American community and the price costly. There were no bargain outlets or cheap options for freedom and dignity. In 1954, just a year prior to the Rosa Parks incident, the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled segregation unconstitutional. However, most of the Southern states, and especially Alabama, refused to be in consonance with the nation and remained adamant about maintaining segregated social structures.
While the Montgomery authorities pressed on with the prosecution of Rosa Parks, the Women's Political Council, under the leadership of Professor JoAnn Robinson, was taking steps to link strong political action to the trial. The group printed and distributed over 50,000 fliers asking Montgomery's African American community to mount a one-day protest and boycott the Montgomery bus company by staying off the buses on December 5—the day of Rosa Parks's trial. The one-day protest was successful, as the Montgomery buses with predominantly African American routes were empty, but Rosa Parks and the NAACP lost their case. Parks was convicted of violating segregated seating laws, such as section 1413 above. Fresh from this defeat, the MIA met to chart new strategies, including the extension of the bus boycott. That evening, over 8,000 people gathered at the Holt Street Baptist Church to listen to the president of the MIA and to resolve to continue with the boycott.
On December 8, after almost 4 days of the continuing boycott, MIA officials met with attorneys from the bus company and city commissioners to resolve their differences. The MIA presented a case for established racial seatings with no mobile area, as well as the employment of African American drivers to serve African American neighborhoods. The attorneys and commissioners rejected the proposal completely.
The MIA returned to the boycott with strategies to sustain it. This was a serious challenge because of the nature of the community: It was one of the poorest communities in the nation and its members needed the income that going to work on the buses provided. The protesters had no choice—they still had to go to work, go to school, and carry on the activities necessary for survival, such as paying the rent or mortgage and putting food on the table. Most members of the community were in service jobs and positions. They were nannies, cooks, maids, butlers, dishwashers, and laborers. This was not a community in which owning an automobile was a basic rite of passage.

Organized Defiance

The MIA turned to the 45,000 African American community members to organize car pools to get people to and from work. With family and community members volunteering their cars and services as drivers, local insurance agents started canceling liability policies on what were called the “MIA taxis.” King's response to this was to seek out a black insurance agent in Atlanta who provided policies covered by Lloyd's of London. Thus the MIA had worked out a scheme and schedule that enabled the African American community to successfully continue the boycott.
Meanwhile, city officials were seeking ways to break the protest and the spirit of the boycott. They tried several strategies. On December 10 they put their first strategy into effect when they completely withdrew city buses from African American routes and neighborhoods. Their second strategy was to threaten taxi drivers with prosecution if they charged African American patrons less than the 45 cent minimum fare. Then, on January 21, 1956, they initiated their third strategy when the city commission met with three black ministers who were not part of the MIA and reported that a compromise had been reached and the boycott ended. This news was leaked to the press, with newspapers—especially the mainly white newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser—encouraged to report that the boycott was over. News of this trickery reached King and the MIA officials in enough time for them to counter it by spreading the truth in the grassroots establishments of the community, such as local eateries, bars, and nightclubs.
On January 26, when city officials made their fourth attempt to force the African American community to end the boycott, it was clear that the white establishment was getting desperate. While conducting a car pool, King was hawkishly tailed by a motorcycle cop. The moment that he dropped off his passengers, the cop ordered him out of the car and arrested him for driving 30 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone. Following this, a less legal route was used by some members of the white community to try to dissuade the MIA from continuing their protest. On January 30, Martin Luther King's Montgomery home was bombed while his wife and baby daughter and a friend were inside. Fortunately, no one was injured. On February 1, E. D. Nixon's home was also bombed.
On February 21, King, along with 89 African American activists in the bus boycott, were charged with being a party to conspiracy. They were indicted for hindering and preventing the operation of business without any just or legal cause. King was ordered to pay $500 in fines in addition to another $500 in court costs. As the boycott continued, the business community, especially the downtown store owners, began to feel the economic pressure of the protest. The boycott was costing them thousands of dollars because African American patrons were less likely to take weekend shopping trips into the downtown district. The store owners formed a group called the Men of Montgomery in reaction to the boycott. The aim of the group was to negotiate a way to end the boycott—not for moral reasons, not to end segregation, but to keep their profits from evaporating. Their negotiations never really led to any outcomes.
On June 4, 1956, the U.S. district court ruled 2 to 1 that racial segregation on the Montgomery city bus lines is unconstitutional. A Southern judge cast the dissenting vote. The City of Montgomery resisted this ruling and appealed it. Five months later, on November 13, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the federal district court and declared unconstitutional Alabama's state and local segregation laws. Even with this announcement, the MIA did not immediately endorse patronage of city buses. They waited patiently for the arrival of the mandate from the Supreme Court. On December 20, the federal injunctions prohibiting segregation on buses were delivered to both the city of Montgomery and the bus company, and Alabama state officials were served with injunctions.
December 21, 1956 saw the end of racial segregation in Alabama. African Americans returned to the city buses, but not without a price and future anguish. The city halted bus service at 5:00 that afternoon due to several sniper attacks aimed at the buses. The Supreme Court decision to integrate the buses led to a wave of countless bombings of African American homes, churches, cab stands, and service stations. On January 27, 1957, an unexploded bomb was discovered on the porch of the King residence. Just over a year later, in February of 1957, King and several ministers who served in the MIA moved to Atlanta, where they formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and elected King as their president.
Yet Montgomery and Alabama remain the cradle of the civil rights movement, as they were the proving ground for King's nonviolent resistance techniques. Coretta Scott King, in My Life with Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that “Montgomery was the soil in which the seed of a new theory of social action took root.” Rosa Parks, the bus boycott, the nameless 45,000 African American citizens of Montgomery, the MIA, and the Women's Political Council can best be described as the droplets of water that would precede the flood of the 1960s civil rights movement.



  • buses
  • boycotts
  • Rosa Parks
  • segregation laws
  • segregation
  • African American communities


Further Reading

  • King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1964). Why We Can't Wait. New York: New American Library. King gives a remarkable account of the civil rights struggle, explaining why it was impossible for the black population to wait for whites to end segregation and injustice.
  • Madhubuti, Haki. (1978). Enemies: The Clash of Races. Chicago: Third World Press. Madhubuti's book is an exploration of the difficult struggle blacks have had in the United States to gain equality and justice.