The Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s was the first “direct-action protest” against segregation in the US. It was sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, who refused to give up her seat in a Montgomery city bus.
The bus system in Montgomery, as in many other cities in the South, had segregated seating during this period. The front section was reserved for whites, while black people had to sit in the back. The two sections were separated by an invisible, movable “line”, which was moved back whenever there were no more seats available in the front section but still more white passengers boarding.
On 1 December 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a bus after work, where she took a seat in the middle of the bus. Over time, the white section of the bus filled up until there were no more seats available, which lead to a white man standing behind the bus driver. When the driver noticed this, he ordered Rosa Parks and three others to leave their seats. While the three others gave up their seats, Parks refused. The driver, James Fred Blake, with whom she had had problems in the past, came to the back and demanded she gave up her seat. When she still refused to comply, he threatened to call the police, but to no avail. Blake then did call the authorities and two policemen came and arrested Parks.
Rosa Parks’ arrest started a wave of protests in Montgomery. While her arrest served as the fuse in 1955, plans for a boycott had existed before. The Women’s Political Council (WPC), which, at the time of the boycott, had 250 members, had debated actions like that in the past, and were only waiting for the “right” time. However, Rosa Parks’ arrest was not the first arrest of an African-American woman in Montgomery who had violated the segregation order in city busses. A few months earlier, Claudette Colvin, just 15 years old, also had refused to give up her seat when requested. While Jo Ann Robinson, who led the WPC at the time, thought this might be the time for the planned boycott, others were hesitant. Colvin seemed too young, had resisted her arrest and was pregnant and unmarried. So, they thought she might not be a good figurehead for their plans. Louisa Smith, who also was arrested because of violating the segregation order in city busses, was judged to be equally “unsuitable”. Rosa Parks, however, seemed perfect.
Born in 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, as Rosa Luise McCauley, Parks attended a local dame-school, where she received her education. She married Raymond Parks in 1932, a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Long before the bus boycott she had become active in civil rights affairs, in church, but also in the local branch of the NAACP, which she joined in 1943. Parks also attended the Highlander Folk School, a training-centre for civil rights activists. Rosa Parks became a well-respected member of the black community in Montgomery.
The WPC distributed leaflets which proposed a bus boycott for 5 December 1955, the day Rosa Parks had to appear in court. They also invited to a meeting in the Holt Street Baptist Church the same day. At this meeting, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was founded and Martin Luther King Jr., 26 at the time, was elected as the head of the organisation. Because the one day boycott was deemed very successful King and his followers decided to prolong the boycott until they achieved a better service for black costumers, while the MIA was to become the action’s spearhead.
The boycott lasted more than a year, from 5 December 1955 to 20 December 1956. Crucial for the success of the boycott were arranged carpools which allowed African-Americans to get to and from work.
During the boycott Fred Gray, a black Montgomery lawyer, filed a civil action lawsuit together with four women. A district court ruled in June 1956 that segregation in busses violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the American constitution. An attempt to overturn the ruling at the Supreme Court failed. The boycott was not just a success in this regard, it inspired similar actions across the South. It also promoted cooperation between activists of the North and South, was the foundation for the Southern Christian Conference (SCLC), which played a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement and marked the beginning of Martin Luther King’s (political) career.
Decker, Stefanie. Black Women in Alabama, 1954-1974. In: Southern Black Women in the Modern Civil Rights Movement, edited by Glasrud, Bruce A./Pitre, Merline, 87-94, Texas A&M University Press, 2013.
Theoharis, Jeanne. The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Boston: Beacon Press, 2013.
“Police report on arrest of Rosa Parks”. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/596074
“Fingerprint card of Rosa Parks”. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/641627
“Diagram of bus showing where Rosa Parks was seated”. https://catalog.archives.gov/id/596069
“Rosa Parks”. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rosaparks.jpg
Author: Anne-Catherine Lethert