The Montgomery Alabama Bus Boycott
"My feets is weary, but my soul is rested."
The Montgomery Bus Boycott officially started on December 1, 1955. That was the day when the blacks of Montgomery, Alabama, decided that they would boycott the city buses until they could sit anywhere they wanted, instead of being relegated to the back when a white boarded. It was not, however, the day that the movement to desegregate the buses started. Perhaps the movement started on the day in 1943 when a black seamstress named Rosa Parks paid her bus fare and then watched the bus drive off as she tried to re-enter through the rear door, as the driver had told her to do. Perhaps the movement started on the day in 1949 when a black professor Jo Ann Robinson absentmindedly sat at the front of a nearly empty bus, then ran off in tears when the bus driver screamed at her for doing so. Perhaps the movement started on the day in the early 1950s when a black pastor named Vernon Johns tried to get other blacks to leave a bus in protest after he was forced to give up his seat to a white man, only to have them tell him, "You ought to knowed better." The story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott is often told as a simple, happy tale of the "little people" triumphing over the seemingly insurmountable forces of evil. The truth is a little less romantic and a little more complex.
The simple version of the story leaves out some very important people, such as Jo Ann Robinson, of whom Martin Luther King, Jr., would later write, "Apparently indefatigable, she, perhaps more than any other person, was active on every level of the protest." She was an educated woman, a professor at the all-black Alabama State College, and a member of the Women's Political Council in Montgomery. After her traumatic experience on the bus in 1949, she tried to start a protest but was shocked when other Women's Political Council members brushed off the incident as "a fact of life in Montgomery." After the Supreme Court's Brown decision in 1954, she wrote a letter to the mayor of Montgomery, W.A. Gayle, saying that "there has been talk from 25 or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses." By 1955, the Women's Political Council had plans for just such a boycott. Community leaders were just waiting for the right person to be arrested, a person who would anger the black community into action, who would agree to test the segregation laws in court, and who, most importantly, was "above reproach." When fifteen year old Claudette Colvin was arrested early in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat, E.D. Nixon of the NAACP thought he had found the perfect person, but Colvin turned out to be pregnant. Nixon later explained, "I had to be sure that I had somebody I could win with." Enter Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks is probably the most romanticized personage in the Montgomery cast of characters. She is often portrayed as a simple seamstress who, exhausted after a long day at work, refused to give up her seat to a white person. While this is not untrue, there is more to the story. Parks was educated; she had attended the laboratory school at Alabama State College because there was no high school for blacks in Montgomery at that time, but had decided to become a seamstress because she could not find a job to suit her skills. She was also a long-time NAACP worker who had taken a special interest in Claudette Colvin's case. When she was arrested in December 1955, she had recently completed a workshop on race relations at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee. And she was a well-respected woman with a spotless record.
On Thursday, December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a city bus and sat with three other blacks in the fifth row, the first row that blacks could occupy. A few stops later, the front four rows were filled with whites, and one white man was left standing. According to law, blacks and whites could not occupy the same row, so the bus driver asked all four of the blacks seated in the fifth row to move. Three complied, but Parks refused. She was arrested. When E.D. Nixon heard that Parks had been arrested, he called the police to find out why. He was told that it was "[n]one of your damn business." He asked Clifford Durr, a sympathetic white lawyer, to call. Durr easily found out that Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Nixon went to the jail and posted bond for Parks. Then he told her, "Mrs. Parks, with your permission we can break down segregation on the bus with your case." She talked it over with her husband and her mother, then agreed. That night, Jo Ann Robinson put plans for a one-day boycott into action. She mimeographed handouts urging blacks to stay off the city buses on Monday, when Parks' case was due to come up. She and her students distributed the anonymous fliers throughout Montgomery on Friday morning. That evening, a group of ministers and civil rights leaders had a meeting to discuss the boycott. It did not go well. Many ministers were put off by the way Rev. L. Roy Bennett took control of the meeting. Some left and others were about to leave. Those remaining, however, agreed to spread word of the boycott through their sermons on Sunday, then meet again on Monday night if the boycott went well to decide whether or not to continue it.
Martin Luther King, Jr., minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, thought that "if we could get 60 percent cooperation the protest would be a success." He was pleasantly surprised when bus after empty bus rolled past his house that morning. "A miracle had taken place," King would later write. "The once dormant and quiescent Negro community was now fully awake." The group from Friday night met again that afternoon and decided to call themselves the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). They elected King as president. The next decision was whether or not to end the boycott. Some ministers wanted to end it as a one-day success. Then E.D. Nixon rose to speak:
The MIA decided to let the people vote on whether or not to continue the boycott at the mass meeting that night. There, the decision was unanimous. The boycott would continue.
When the boycott began, no one expected it to last for very long. There had been boycotts of buses by blacks before, most recently in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1953. A one-day boycott, followed three months later by a week-long boycott, resulted in buses that were more desegregated but that still had some seats reserved for whites as well as some for blacks. On Thursday, December 8, the fourth day of the boycott, King and other MIA officials met with officials and lawyers from the bus company, as well as the city commissioners, to present a moderate desegregation plan similar to the one already implemented in Baton Rouge and other Southern cities, including Mobile, Alabama. The MIA was hopeful that the plan would be accepted and the boycott would end, but the bus company refused to consider it. In addition, city officials struck a blow to the boycott when they announced that any cab driver charging less than the 45 cent minimum fare would be prosecuted. Since the boycott began, the black cab services had been charging blacks only 10 cents to ride, the same as the bus fare, but this service would be no more. Suddenly the MIA was faced with the prospect of having thousands of blacks with no way to get to work, and with no end to the boycott in sight.
In response, the MIA worked out a "private taxi" plan, under which blacks w ho owned cars picked up and dropped off blacks who needed rides at designated points. The plan was elaborate and took a great deal of planning; consequently, the MIA appointed a Transportation Committee to oversee it. The service worked so well so quickly that even the White Citizens Council (whose membership doubled during one month of the boycott) had to admit that it moved with "military precision."
Whites tried to end the boycott in every way possible. One often-used method was to try to divide the black community. On January 21, 1956, the City Commission met with three non-MIA black ministers and proposed a "compromise," which was basically the system already in effect. The ministers accepted, and the commission leaked (false) reports to a newspaper that the boycott was over. The MIA did not even hear of the compromise until a black reporter in the North who received a wire report phoned to ask if the Montgomery blacks had really settled for so little. By that time it was Saturday night. On Sunday morning Montgomery newspapers were going to print the news that the boycott was over and the city's blacks were going to believe it. To prevent this from happening, some MIA officials went bar-hopping to spread the word that the stories were a hoax, that the boycott was still on. Later, the black ministers told King that they hadn't understood the proposal. When that effort to break up the boycott failed, whites turned to violence. King's home was bombed on January 30, and Nixon's home was bombed on February 1. Next, whites turned to the law. On February 21, 89 blacks were indicted under an old law prohibiting boycotts. King was the first defendant to be tried. As press from around the nation looked on, King was ordered to pay $500 plus $500 in court costs or spend 386 days in the state penitentiary.
Whites also tried to break down the "private taxi" system that many blacks relied on as their only means of transportation to and from work. Some churches had purchased station wagons, usually called "rolling churches," to be used in the private taxi service. Liability insurance was canceled four times in four months before King found insurance through a black agent in Atlanta, underwritten by Lloyd's of London. The police also arrested drivers for minor traffic offenses. When King dropped by a pickup point to help transport blacks waiting there, he was arrested for driving thirty miles per hour in a twenty-five mile per hour zone.
Despite all the pressures to end the boycott, blacks continued to stay off the buses. One white bus driver stopped to let off a lone black man in a black neighborhood. Looking in his rear view mirror, he saw an old black woman with a cane rushing towards the bus. He opened the door and said, "You don't have to rush auntie. I'll wait for you." The woman replied, "In the first place, I ain't your auntie. In the second place, I ain't rushing to get on your bus. I'm jus' trying to catch up with that nigger who just got off, so I can hit him with this here stick."
By this point, some members of Montgomery's business community were becoming frustrated with the boycott, which was costing them thousands of dollars because blacks were less likely to shop in downtown stores. Although they were as opposed to integration as the next white Montgomery resident, they realized that the boycott was bad for business and therefore wanted the boycott to end. They formed a group called the Men of Montgomery and tried negotiating directly with the boycotters. Eventually, however, these discussions broke down, and the boycott continued.
But blacks had already begun to fight to end the boycott in court. They would no longer settle for the moderate desegregation plan that they had first proposed. Now, they would accept nothing less than full integration. The city was fighting a losing battle. The blacks were armed with the Brown decision, less than two years old, which said that the "separate but equal" doctrine had no place in public education. Surely it must follow that the doctrine had no place in any public facilities. In addition, the city was not in the prejudiced local courts but in federal court, where even a black man could hope to have a fair trial. When the city defended segregation by saying that integration would lead to violence, Judge Rives asked, "Is it fair to command one man to surrender his constitutional rights, if they are his constitutional rights, in order to prevent another man from committing a crime?" The federal court decided 2-1 in favor of the blacks, with the lone dissent coming from a Southern judge. The city, of course, appealed the ruling, but on November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal court's ruling, declaring segregation on buses unconstitutional. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was officially over.
Blacks continued, however, to stay off the city buses until the mandate from the Supreme Court arrived. During that time, MIA officials tried to prepare blacks as best they could for integrated buses. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., noted wryly, "not a single white group would take the responsibility of preparing the white community."
Blacks returned to the buses on December 21, 1956, over a year after the boycott began. But their troubles were not over. Snipers shot at buses, forcing the city to suspend bus operations after 5 P.M. A group tried to start a whites-only bus service. There was also a wave of bombings. The homes of two black leaders, four Baptists churches, the People's Service Station and Cab Stand, and the home of another black were all bombed. In addition, an unexploded bomb was found on King's front porch. Seven white men were arrested for the bombings, and five were indicted. The first two defendants, Raymond D. York and Sonny Kyle Livingston, were found not guilty, even though they had signed confessions. The remainder of the bombers were set free under a compromise that also canceled the cases of blacks arrested under the anti-boycott laws, although King still had to pay his $500 fine.
The KKK also tried to scare the blacks, but "it seemed to have lost its spell," King wrote. "...[O]ne cold night a small Negro boy was seen warming his hands at a burning cross." The violence died down after several prominent whites spoke out against it, and the integration of the Montgomery buses was ultimately successful.
On January 10 and 11, 1957, ministers from the MIA joined other ministers from around the South in Atlanta, Georgia. They founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and elected Martin Luther King, Jr., as president. SCLC would continue to work in various areas of the South for many years, continuing the nonviolent fight for civil rights started in Birmingham.