Montgomery Bus Boycott Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, fought entrenched racial discrimination in the public transportation system by refusing to use it, demonstrating the inability of the system to sustain itself without the patronage of the group against which it discriminated.

Summary of Event

When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Brown v. Board of Education in May, 1954, ruling that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, it marked the beginning of a period of dramatic change in the relationships between African Americans and whites. Until the mid-1960’s, that change was hastened by the organized nonviolent resistance by many African Americans to laws and conditions that they regarded as discriminatory. The first occasion in which such tactics proved successful was a boycott of public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. Boycotts Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) African Americans;segregation Segregation;public accommodations [kw]Montgomery Bus Boycott (Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 21, 1956) [kw]Bus Boycott, Montgomery (Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 21, 1956) [kw]Boycott, Montgomery Bus (Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 21, 1956) Boycotts Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) African Americans;segregation Segregation;public accommodations [g]North America;Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 21, 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott[05030] [g]United States;Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 21, 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott[05030] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 21, 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott[05030] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 21, 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott[05030] [c]Trade and commerce;Dec. 5, 1955-Dec. 21, 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott[05030] Parks, Rosa King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;protests and demonstrations Nixon, E. D. Robinson, Jo Ann Abernathy, Ralph Durr, Clifford Gray, Fred

Although African Americans had achieved some hard-fought successes before 1954—most notably the desegregation of the armed forces—in many respects they remained a separate community, enjoying fewer rights and opportunities and less legal protection than whites. This was especially true in the Deep South, where the doctrine of “separate but equal” was held to apply to most areas of daily life and was used to justify a decidedly unequal segregation. Hundreds of laws, many of them passed in the late nineteenth century, restricted the rights of black Southerners to eat, travel, study, or worship with whites.

The school desegregation ruling brought no immediate change to race relations in Montgomery. Once the capital of the Confederacy, this city of about 130,000 people—50,000 of whom were African American—continued resolutely in the old pattern of racial separation. The African American community of Montgomery had undertaken initial steps to challenge certain local segregation practices that were particularly offensive. E. D. Nixon of Montgomery headed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;civil rights protests (NAACP) in Alabama. Because he worked as a sleeping-car porter, he was less susceptible to attempts by the white establishment to control his behavior by threatening his job. Jo Ann Robinson helped lead the African American clubwomen in Montgomery, who provided a powerful organizational backbone among the small African Americans middle class in Montgomery. This nascent movement still lacked both a unified structure and a single issue to mobilize the African American community to push for civil rights.

The issue came to a head on December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, a seamstress at a Montgomery department store and formerly the secretary of the local NAACP chapter, refused to give up her seat to maintain a row of vacant seats between white and black riders on a public bus system in Montgomery, as required by law. She was arrested and charged with violating the segregation ordinance. Parks’s action was in part spontaneous—she had not boarded the bus with the intent to violate any segregation ordinance. She had, however, attended the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, where members of the community learned to become more effective, and a lifetime of enduring racial indignities had made her acutely aware of the evils of segregation.

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Immediately, Montgomery’s African American community sprang into action. Fred Gray, one of but four black lawyers in Alabama, contacted Clifford Durr, a liberal white attorney, to post bail for Parks. Nixon brought together two ministers, Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., with Jo Ann Robinson to plan for a massive boycott of Montgomery public buses, a majority of whose riders were African Americans. It would be necessary to arrange for transportation for scores of African Americans who did not own cars. To coordinate the massive undertaking, Montgomery’s African American leaders created the Montgomery Improvement Association Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), presided over by King, the twenty-six-year-old pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The boycott began on December 5, 1955.

At first, whites reacted with indifference or amusement, until the bus company’s revenues dropped by 75 percent. A series of meetings between the city commissioners, representatives of the bus company, and the MIA failed to produce any agreement on the African Americans’ demands—courteous treatment by bus drivers; a first-come, first-served seating arrangement, with blacks filling the rear and whites the front of the bus; and the employment of African American drivers on routes that served predominantly African American neighborhoods of Montgomery. Instead, the city police department began to harass the carpools that had been set up by the MIA to provide alternative transportation and arrested some of the drivers. Police officers arrested King himself for speeding, and on January 30, persons unknown blasted King’s house with dynamite. The houses of two other boycott leaders met a similar fate.

These acts of violence and intimidation affected the course of events in several ways. First, they united the African Americans in Montgomery, inspiring them to continue the boycott for more than a year. The violence also attracted national attention to Montgomery and led to substantial outside support for the boycott, assistance vital to its success. Finally, the violence served as a foil for the rhetoric of nonviolent resistance that King so eloquently articulated. In one mass meeting after another, he urged his followers to ignore hostile provocations, to confront their persecutors passively, and to refuse to fight back, relying on the moral authority of their actions to sway the hearts and minds of their antagonists.

While the boycott continued, the legal issues it raised were argued in federal courts. On February 1, 1956, five Montgomery women filed suit to have the Supreme Court strike down the city bus seating ordinance. The case was heard on May 11, by which time eighty-nine MIA members faced local charges for conspiracy to interfere with normal business. In November, city officials obtained an injunction against the MIA officials for running a carpool, which nearly brought the boycott to a halt. Nevertheless, the federal suit received a favorable hearing and was affirmed by the Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation in Browder v. Gayle Browder v. Gayle (1956) in November, and the court ordered the seating on Montgomery buses desegregated on December 17, 1956. Four days later, King, Abernathy, and Nixon rode the bus downtown and were able to sit wherever they wanted.

The boycott succeeded for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the timely court ruling. It also benefited from fissures in the white community across gender, age, and economic lines. White middle-class women often transported their black maids to and from work, unwittingly aiding the boycott. Within the Chamber of Commerce, a coalition of young businessmen called the Men of Montgomery demanded that the city fathers end the boycott, because the city’s tarnished image made it difficult to attract outside businesses.

Significance

Martin Luther King, Jr., summed up the immediate impact of the Montgomery bus boycott in a speech he gave before the final mass meeting of the MIA. King noted that African Americans had discovered they could stick together, that black leaders did not have to sell out, that threats and violence did not overcome strongly motivated nonviolence, that black churches were becoming militant, that black people had gained a sense of dignity and destiny, and that nonviolent resistance was a powerful weapon.

The boycott was both an end and a beginning for large-scale black community organization. The MIA disappeared without taking on any more massive challenges to segregation. King, Abernathy, and other leaders, however, met a few weeks later to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). This group led protests against segregation all across the South, acting as a clearinghouse for change, and also gave King a platform from which to speak to the world. The SCLC would become a major factor leading to the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963 and the March on Washington during which King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. The Montgomery boycott also exploded a long-held white myth, the idea that southern blacks had no objections to segregation and that all protests were caused by outside agitators. This idea could not stand before the reality of a massive long-term boycott conceived, organized, and led by local black citizens.

Until Montgomery, the only effective tactic challenging segregation had been the legal approach used by the NAACP. After Montgomery, it was clear that boycotts, mass meetings, and demonstrations could be used along with court challenges. There was some bickering between the MIA and the NAACP over which approach worked best. The court ruling forced the Montgomery bus company to end segregation at a time when it might have held out longer against economic pressure, but without the organization of the black community, there would have been no roused national conscience to encourage legal and legislative action.

It is difficult to think of the Civil Rights movement without thinking of King. On December 1, 1955, King was a young, unknown minister of a black Baptist church in the Deep South. By December 20, 1956, he was an internationally recognized black leader. If Rosa Parks had not refused to give up her seat, the world might never have heard of King.

Integration of the city buses was not the last act of the drama of race relations in Montgomery. There would be violence and blood would be shed at later dates, but an irreversible step had been taken. One of the major streets in Montgomery was renamed Rosa Parks Boulevard. Appropriately, city buses traveling this thoroughfare carry the destination sign “Rosa Parks.” Her death on October 24, 2005, unleashed a flood of encomium for her achievement. Her casket was placed in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., for two days so that thousands of mourners and dignitaries could pay their last respects to this person of immense character and courage. Boycotts Civil Rights movement;demonstrations and protests Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) African Americans;segregation Segregation;public accommodations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrow, David J. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow, 1986. A thorough, detailed biography of King, which provides an excellent account of King’s Montgomery days.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Martin Luther, Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. New York: Harper & Row, 1958. King’s own account of the boycott.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kohl, Herbert. She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. New York: New Press, 2005. Critical examination of the portrayal of Rosa Parks in children’s books. Emphasizes that her resistance was based on calculated political determination, rather than mere exhaustion or momentary anger. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis, David L. King: A Critical Biography. New York: Praeger, 1970. A balanced biography that attempts to show why nonviolent resistance might work in the South but fail as a strategy to deal with racism in northern and Western cities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Jo Ann Gibson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987. Provides a powerful portrait of the world of middle-class women in Montgomery and the essential role they played in the boycott strategy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thornton, J. Mills. “Challenge and Response in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.” Alabama Review 33 (July, 1980): 163-235. Clearly illustrates the context in which the MIA operated and shows how its strategy exacerbated the fissures among the white leadership in Montgomery.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Donnie, with Wayne Greenhaw. The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2006. Focuses on the courage and commitment of the average African American participating in the boycott and the importance of the figures who have been eclipsed in history by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. The standard history of racial segregation, first published in 1955. The phrase “Jim Crow” was the nickname for discriminatory laws and practices. Woodward frequently revised his book to update legal, social, and historical trends.

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SCLC Forms to Link Civil Rights Groups

Greensboro Sit-Ins

Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote

Civil Rights Protesters Attract International Attention

King Delivers His “I Have a Dream” Speech

Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations

Selma-Montgomery March

Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing

Categories: History Content