Mar 1, 2021
It’s been 55 years since the start of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It proved to be a pivotal moment in the development of the struggle of the black population in the U.S. against racism.
American history lessons teach the story of the boycott’s beginning with Rosa Parks getting arrested in December of 1956 for refusing to give up her seat in the bus. Of course, there’s much more to the story than what’s usually taught in the schools.
Certainly the black population had shown a willingness to fight before the Montgomery boycott. In 1941, A. Phillip Randolph and others organized a March on Washington, which Franklin Roosevelt responded to—even before the march—by signing an executive order creating the Fair Employment Practices Commission. During World War II, black veterans resisted segregation in the army. Having risked their lives and having experienced life in other countries where legal segregation did not exist, some attempted to stand up against the Jim Crow laws of the South. In these fights many encountered arrests by racist police, and lynchings were common. As a result, there was fear of getting involved.
Those who took the lead of the black struggles in these years aimed at trying to pressure the federal government to overturn the Jim Crow laws. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education against segregation in the schools, trying to pretend that the legal system would suffice. But the black population knew it had to move beyond the legal channels.
Montgomery was not the first place where black people fought to desegregate the buses. Others had carried out a bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and made limited gains there.
Nor was Rosa Parks the first black person to refuse to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, something she herself readily admitted. Five years earlier a black soldier was murdered for doing the same thing. Neither was Parks the first woman arrested in Montgomery for doing so. Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin had done so in March 1955.
Despite the way that typical history lessons portray Mrs. Parks as simply “polite and respectable,” her refusal to give up her seat was not her first involvement in the fight against racism. In 1931, she and Raymond Parks, the man she married a year later, helped organize defense of the Scottsboro boys, a case in which the Communist Party was also very involved. For them to stand alongside the Communist Party in the South of that time is quite a testament to the courage they both showed. In the years after, Mrs. Parks took part in trying to give the Montgomery branch of the NAACP a more activist stance.
Nevertheless, Parks’ arrest gave the NAACP’s leadership the legal case they thought it possible to get the population behind, and they called on local ministers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and others to lead a boycott of the city’s bus system.
One of the many black social and political clubs in Montgomery was the Women’s Political Council (WPC). Its leader, Jo-Ann Robinson, a black college teacher, courageously went out in the middle of the night with others to find a way to get 50,000 leaflets printed, calling for a boycott of the buses. The next morning the WPC distributed those leaflets to churches, barber shops and schools across the city. The following Sunday, black church leaders encouraged their congregations to take part in the boycott, and it began the next day.
That Monday night, hundreds of people attended a meeting to decide whether to continue the boycott. E.D. Nixon, head of the local NAACP, pushed some reluctant ministers and others to support the effort, saying, “You who are afraid, you better get your hat and coat and go home. This is going to be a long drawn out affair.”
The boycott lasted an entire year. The black population of Montgomery virtually unanimously supported it. Daily mass meetings of 200 to 300 people, at times more, organized the daily activities of the struggle.
They organized an alternative transportation system to carry people to work. Black cab drivers who owned their cabs agreed to pick people up at bus stops and charge them only 10 cents. As Rosa Parks described, “A sophisticated system was developed with cabs, 20 private cars and 14 station wagons bought by churches, with pick-up stations and scheduled service from 5:30 to midnight.”
It didn’t happen without reprisals from local authorities. Police spied on bus stops and took down license plate numbers, later handing out tickets for trivial infractions. The city indicted 100 leaders, sending many to jail. White segregationists bombed four black churches.
Despite these attacks, the black population adjusted their methods and continued the fight. The fact that their organization could function was a tribute to the organizational work carried out in the years before and meant, effectively, the black people of Montgomery had set up their own government in Montgomery.
The boycott disrupted the ordinary course of life in the city and hurt the bus system’s revenues. The city eventually gave in. The boycott spread to 21 other cities and after witnessing the mobilization in Montgomery, those cities’ officials rapidly agreed to desegregate their buses. In November 1956, the Supreme Court, recognizing what the black population itself had done, ruled against segregation in the bus lines.
It would take several more decades to completely overturn Jim Crow laws in the South. The few easier victories that quickly followed the Montgomery mobilization were soon followed by bitter attacks.
As the movement took up further demands for jobs, higher pay, equality in education and desegregation in housing, and expanded to the cities of the North, the black population through its struggles, ran up against the limits of what could be gained through moral suasion and legal channels. It later went beyond those limits.
Nevertheless, the Montgomery bus boycott was a turning point for many. James Forman, a young college student at the time, describes the mood of people he spoke to in black barber shops changing from a constant refrain of “we can’t get together” to that of “at least people in Montgomery are sticking together.”
The boycott gave many a belief in the possibility of collective action to change their situation.