The Montgomery Bus Boycott a year-long protest in Montgomery, Alabama, that galvanized the American Civil Rights Movement and led to a 1956 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States declaring segregated seating on buses unconstitutional.
In December 1955, 42,000 black residents of Montgomery began a year-long boycott of city buses ( Montgomery Bus Boycott ) to protest racially segregated seating. After 381 days of taking taxis, carpooling, and walking the hostile streets of Montgomery, African Americans eventually won their fight to desegregate seating on public buses, not only in Montgomery, but throughout the United States.
The protest was first organized by the Women’s Political Council as a one-day boycott to coincide with the trial of Rosa Parks, who had been arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated Montgomery bus. By the next morning, the council, led by JoAnn Robinson, had printed 52,000 fliers asking Montgomery blacks to stay off public buses on December 5, the day of the trial. Meanwhile, labor activist E. D. Nixon, who had bailed Parks out of jail, notified Ralph Abernathy, minister of the First Baptist Church, and Martin Luther King Jr., the new minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, of Parks’s arrest. A group of about 50 black leaders and one white minister, Robert Graetz, gathered in the basement of King’s church to endorse the boycott and begin planning a massive rally for the evening of the trial. Graetz offered his support from the pulpit of his predominantly white Lutheran church. The Montgomery Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had been looking for a test case for segregation, began preparing for the legal challenge.
The issue of segregated seating had long been a source of resentment in Montgomery’s black community. African Americans were forced to pay their fares at the front then reboard the bus at the back. They faced systematic harassment from white drivers, who sometimes pulled away before black passengers could reboard. On the bus, blacks sat behind a mobile barrier dividing the races, and as the bus filled, the barrier was pushed back to make room for white passengers. No black person could sit in the same row as a white, and whites had priority in this middle “no-man’s land.”
On the morning of Parks’s trial, buses rumbled nearly empty through the streets of Montgomery. Police officers with shotguns roamed in search of imaginary “Negro goon squads” who they believed were forcing blacks to stay off the buses. After Parks lost her case and was convicted of violating the segregated seating laws, black leaders met again to organize an extension of the bus boycott. To this end, they formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) and elected King as its president. That evening 7,000 blacks crowded into Holt Street Baptist Church, where King inspired the audience with his words: “There comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”
With this speech, King was able to spark the black residents’ collective outrage into a grassroots movement that would sustain the boycott. The Montgomery Bus Boycott followed King’s credo of nonviolent resistance, even in the face of a police crackdown and attempts by white supremacists to undermine the protest. Montgomery police threatened to arrest taxi drivers giving discount rates to the black riders, and when the MIA arranged carpools, the police systematically harassed drivers, arresting them for allegedly going too fast or too slow. Meanwhile, the boycott leaders squared off at the bargaining table with the local officials. The MIA presented its modest demands for bus seating by race, with no mobile area, and “Negro routes” with black drivers. They were met with unconditional refusal.
Many white supremacists joined the White Citizens Council, one of many racist citizens’ organizations that gained power throughout the South in the 1960s. Convinced that there was an outside mastermind of the movement, they focused their attention on terrorizing boycott leaders. Vigilante groups set off bombs at black homes and churches. In addition, there were several police sweeps, and twice King joined the other black protesters in Montgomery’s crowded jails. In one attempt to sabotage the boycott, the Montgomery Advertiser, a white newspaper, planned to put out a false story that the boycott had ended. King and other leaders, warned in advance of the story, traveled late that night to the rural jook joints where black workers went to dance and drink. Thus forewarned, African Americans continued to stay off the local buses. Shortly after, the Advertiser announced that Montgomery was on the verge of a “full scale racial war.”
Even as the protesters and black leaders were confronted with escalating violence, they maintained both nonviolent resistance and their exhausting day-to-day schedule without public transportation. At the same time, the MIA moved ahead on the legal front. On February 1, 1956, shortly after a bomb went off in King’s home, the MIA filed a federal suit against bus segregation in the names of four black women.
In the spring, protesters led by Nixon turned the tables on the local government and caught the attention of the national press. Indicted under a statute that prohibited boycotts “without just cause or legal excuse,” leaders presented themselves at the courthouse rather than waiting to be arrested. The national press came down to cover the scene of black leaders marching into the courthouse while hundreds cheered them on. As protesters walked to work through the summer of 1956, the issue of civil rights took center stage in the national consciousness. After the March trial of the MIA, King appeared on the cover of Time magazine and the New York Times Magazine.
In June a federal court ruled segregated seating unconstitutional, and the case went on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, King and the MIA leadership went to the Montgomery court to try to stave off an injunction against the carpools. They were in court when they were handed a notice from the Associated Press wire announcing the Supreme Court decision that ruled segregated seating on public buses unconstitutional. King addressed a euphoric crowd that night, and over the next week celebrities such as singer Mahalia Jackson and New York minister Gardner C. Taylor came to Montgomery to celebrate. On December 20, 1956, when the federal ruling took effect, an integrated group of Montgomery Bus Boycott supporters, including King, Abernathy, Fred Gray, and Glenn Smiley, rode the city buses.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott had implications that reached far beyond the desegregation of public buses. The protest propelled the Civil Rights Movement into national consciousness and Martin Luther King Jr. into the public eye. In the words of King: “We have gained a new sense of dignity and destiny. We have discovered a new and powerful weapon—nonviolent resistance.”