- In 1955, African American people protested against segregation by refusing to ride the buses for a long time.
- This was the first protest against segregation in America.
- Martin Luther King Jr., a young pastor, emerged as a leader in the American civil rights movement.
In the 1950s, there was a bus law in Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, that said that if the bus was crowded, white people were allowed to have seats in the front. If they couldn’t find a seat and African American people were sitting nearby, they should give up their seats so that whites could sit down.
A few women refused to give up their seats and they were fined. Nobody talked about them.
But when Claudette Colvin was 15, she refused to move to the back of a bus because a white person wanted her seat. Colvin was on the bus, but she refused to leave. The police took her off the bus and arrested her.
Nine months before Rosa Parks also did this and it helped change the world.
The bus of Rosa Parks
On December 1st, 1955, a woman named Rosa Parks was at work.
Rosa Parks was forty-two years old and she worked as a seamstress in a department store. She also had been active in her local chapter of the NAACP. She was the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Rosa took the bus home and sat in the front seat of the African American section.
When the white people in the bus filled all of their seats, their driver told three other African American people to move. They did, but Rosa Parks didn’t.
She was arrested and had to pay $14. Then Rosa Parks called E.D. Nixon, a prominent Black leader.
Action against Montgomery’s laws
Nixon bailed Rosa out of jail and they made a plan for Parks to be the plaintiff in an upcoming court case against Montgomery’s segregation.
The Women’s Political Council (WPC) President Jo Ann Robinson proposed a boycott of the bus system. It would start on December 5th, the same day Rosa Parks would be tried in municipal court.
As news of the boycott spread, more and more people came to help. Black leaders in Montgomery announced the boycott in church on Sunday, December 4th. The boycott was printed on the front page of a newspaper called the Montgomery Advertiser as well.
All black bus riders went on strike the next day.
The bus boycott
Initially, the group did not have to change segregation laws. They just wanted people to be polite and hire African American drivers. The first-come, the first-seated policy would be for white people who would enter from the front and African Americans from the rear.
The demands for black people to ride the buses were not met, so they still stayed off the buses. The boycott lasted more than a year. Even though city officials and white citizens tried to stop them, Montgomery’s black residents still stayed off the buses.
Going to court
A group of four Montgomery women from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) sued Montgomery in court. They wanted more things than just nice words. They wanted to end once and for all with bus segregation laws.
It began with Fred Gray. Fred Gray was a lawyer. He knew there was a law that said that you couldn’t have segregation in public schools anymore. So Fred Gray tried to convince other people that this new law should apply to city buses for example.
Gray got four women, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith to challenge the city busing laws. All four of these women had been mistreated on city buses because they were black.
Though they won the trial, the city of Montgomery still practiced segregation on buses. So then all black people in Montgomery stopped using buses altogether.
How did the city survive without buses?
African Americans made up most of Montgomery’s bus riders. They did not have cars. They decided to walk instead of taking buses.
They also organized carpools for African Americans. The taxies would charge only 10 cents which were the same as bus fare.
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King Jr. led the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. This church was known for being a place where people could go to practice civil disobedience.
Martin Luther King Jr. learned about this idea from Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi, who both taught that nonviolent resistance is an important tool against social injustice.
Black leaders met on the afternoon of December 5th. The group elected Martin Luther King, Jr. to be president. He was the pastor of a Baptist Church.
King spoke about not being violent and protesting against injustices. He said that people need not be violent to protest.
When the boycott began, King talked to a large crowd of black citizens. He told them that they needed not to be violent in their protests. Here are some of his words:
There comes a time when people get tired…. tired of being segregated and humiliated… If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love… historians will have to pause and say ‘there lived a great people—a black people—who injected a new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.
Time goes by but the boycott resists
In 1956, the houses of Martin Luther King Jr. and E. D. Nixon were bombed.
Many people were worried. They got together outside Dr. King’s house. He came out to say:
Be calm as I and my family are. We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.
City officials got an order against the boycott in February 1956. They indicted people who had been boycotting under a law that says that you cannot have the conspiracy to do something unlawful, like interfere with a business.
King was charged and convicted of this crime and was told he must pay $500 or serve 386 days in jail. People outside of Montgomery learned about the boycott and Martin Luther King’s trial. People advised him on how he could use Gandhi’s techniques to be nonviolent.
Women were important to the success of the boycott. Women like Robinson, Carr, and West helped keep MIA committees and volunteer networks running. Mary Burks from the WPC said that “the nameless cooks” helped bring down segregation.
Georgia Gilmore was an activist and a cook. She organized the “Club from Nowhere,” which sold food to raise money for the boycott. She also gave food to people in her home.
But the boycott continued after this happened.
When it became clear that the boycott continued and that the bus company might be put out of business, the city commissioners started to get tough. Police would harass carpool drivers. King was arrested on a false charge of speeding.
The end of the boycott
The bus company lost a lot of money. The city was desperate to end the boycott. The police started to harass King and other MIA leaders.
Carpool drivers were arrested for driving too slow or not using a carpool lane. But despite all this, the boycott remained successful.
African Americans took pride in their actions because they knew that would bring attention to their cause.
Finally, on November 23, 1956, the Supreme Court said that segregated busing was not fair. City officials in Montgomery had to follow what the Court said. The black community of Montgomery stood firm and determined to fight for their rights.
The boycott lasted 381 days, which is more than a year!
The white people didn’t like the court victory. They were angry and they acted quickly to fight it.
One day after the desegregated seating, someone shot at Martin Luther King’s house with a shotgun.
Four days later, two buses were attacked by snipers. They even shot at a black pregnant woman!
White people set off bombs that destroyed black churches too.
The City suspended bus service for a few weeks because of violence. The city remained segregated in almost everything: restaurants, bathrooms,
The Montgomery bus boycott was the start of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. became well-known and a leader thanks to it.
Montgomery became an example for other cities. Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis all had people who did what Dr. King did in Montgomery.
The bus boycott was good for changing the laws that were not fair. The bus boycott also started a big movement where people came together.