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The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a civil rights protest during which African Americans refused to ride city buses in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest segregated seating. The boycott took place from December 5, 1955, to December 20, 1956, and is regarded as the first large-scale U.S. demonstration against segregation. Four days before the boycott began, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested and fined for refusing to yield her bus seat to a white man. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ordered Montgomery to integrate its bus system, and one of the leaders of the boycott, a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as a prominent leader of the American civil rights movement.
Rosa Parks’ Bus
In 1955, African Americans were still required by a Montgomery, Alabama, city ordinance to sit in the back half of city buses and to yield their seats to white riders if the front half of the bus, reserved for whites, was full.
But on December 1, 1955, African American seamstress Rosa Parks was commuting home on Montgomery’s Cleveland Avenue bus from her job at a local department store. She was seated in the front row of the “colored section.” When the white seats filled, the driver, J. Fred Blake, asked Parks and three others to vacate their seats. The other Black riders complied, but Parks refused.
She was arrested and fined $10, plus $4 in court fees. This was not Parks’ first encounter with Blake. In 1943, she had paid her fare at the front of a bus he was driving, then exited so she could re-enter through the back door, as required. Blake pulled away before she could re-board the bus.
Although Parks has sometimes been depicted as a woman with no history of civil rights activism at the time of her arrest, she and her husband Raymond were, in fact, active in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Parks served as its secretary.
Upon her arrest, Parks called E.D. Nixon, a prominent Black leader, who bailed her out of jail and determined she would be an upstanding and sympathetic plaintiff in a legal challenge of the segregation ordinance. African American leaders decided to attack the ordinance using other tactics as well.
The Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of Black women working for civil rights, began circulating flyers calling for a boycott of the bus system on December 5, the day Parks would be tried in municipal court. The boycott was organized by WPC President Jo Ann Robinson.
Montgomery’s African Americans Mobilize
As news of the boycott spread, African American leaders across Montgomery (Alabama’s capital city) began lending their support. Black ministers announced the boycott in church on Sunday, December 4, and the Montgomery Advertiser, a general-interest newspaper, published a front-page article on the planned action.
Approximately 40,000 Black bus riders—the majority of the city’s bus riders—boycotted the system the next day, December 5. That afternoon, Black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The group elected Martin Luther King, Jr., the 26-year-old-pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, as its president, and decided to continue the boycott until the city met its demands.
Initially, the demands did not include changing the segregation laws; rather, the group demanded courtesy, the hiring of Black drivers, and a first-come, first-seated policy, with whites entering and filling seats from the front and African Americans from the rear.
Ultimately, however, a group of five Montgomery women, represented by attorney Fred D. Gray and the NAACP, sued the city in U.S. District Court, seeking to have the busing segregation laws totally invalidated.
Although African Americans represented at least 75 percent of Montgomery’s bus ridership, the city resisted complying with the protester’s demands. To ensure the boycott could be sustained, Black leaders organized carpools, and the city’s African American taxi drivers charged only 10 cents—the same price as bus fare—for African American riders.
Many Black residents chose simply to walk to work or other destinations. Black leaders organized regular mass meetings to keep African American residents mobilized around the boycott.
Integration At Last
On June 5, 1956, a Montgomery federal court ruled that any law requiring racially segregated seating on buses violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment, adopted in 1868 following the U.S. Civil War, guarantees all citizens—regardless of race—equal rights and equal protection under state and federal laws.
The city appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision on December 20, 1956. Montgomery’s buses were integrated on December 21, 1956, and the boycott ended. It had lasted 381 days.
Bus Boycott Meets With Violence
Integration, however, met with significant resistance and even violence. While the buses themselves were integrated, Montgomery maintained segregated bus stops. Snipers began firing into buses, and one shooter shattered both legs of a pregnant African American passenger.
In January 1957, four Black churches and the homes of prominent Black leaders were bombed; a bomb at King’s house was defused. On January 30, 1957, the Montgomery police arrested seven bombers; all were members of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group. The arrests largely brought an end to the busing-related violence.
Boycott Puts Martin Luther King, Jr. in Spotlight
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was significant on several fronts. First, it is widely regarded as the earliest mass protest on behalf of civil rights in the United States, setting the stage for additional large-scale actions outside the court system to bring about fair treatment for African Americans.
Second, in his leadership of the MIA, Martin Luther King emerged as a prominent national leader of the civil rights movement while also solidifying his commitment to nonviolent resistance. King’s approach remained a hallmark of the civil rights movement throughout the 1960s.
READ MORE: The MLK Graphic Novel That Inspired Generations of Civil Rights Activists
Shortly after the boycott’s end, he helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a highly influential civil rights organization that worked to end segregation throughout the South. The SCLC was instrumental in the civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963, and the March on Washington in August of that same year, during which King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The boycott also brought national and international attention to the civil rights struggles occurring in the United States, as more than 100 reporters visited Montgomery during the boycott to profile the effort and its leaders.
Rosa Parks, while shying from the spotlight throughout her life, remained an esteemed figure in the history of American civil rights activism. In 1999, the U.S. Congress awarded her its highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal.
Rosa Parks: Bus Boycott, Civil Rights & Facts
Rosa Parks (1913-2005) helped start the civil rights movement in the United States in 1995 when she refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Rosa Parks’s actions inspired leaders of the Black community to organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted more than one year. During that time, Rosa Parks lost her job and the boycott ended only when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Rosa Parks became a nationally recognized symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end long-established racial segregation over the next half-century.
On Thursday, December 1, 1955, the 42-year-old Rosa Parks came home from work at the Montgomery Fair department store by bus. 70% of riders on a typical day were black, and Rosa Parks was one of them. However, it was only right that the bus drivers could ask a black person to give up their seat to a white rider. On this night at this point of the bus route, a white man had no seats because all of the designated “white section” was taken. So the bus driver told the rider in the four centers of the first row of the “colored” section to stand and add another row of the “white” area. The three obeyed, but Rosa Parks didn’t. In time, police officers approached the stopped bus, evaluated the situation, and took Rosa Parks into custody.
Parks used her one phone call to contact her husband, but word about her arrest spread quickly, and E.D Nixon was there that same afternoon when Rosa Parks was released on bail later that evening. While sitting in Parks’s home, Nixon convinced Parks, her mother, and her husband that Rosa Parks was the plaintiff. The black population of Montgomery would boycott the buses on the day of Rosa Parks’s trial on Monday, December 5. On December 5, Rosa Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws, given a suspended sentence, and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs.
Rosa Parks was called “the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.” She reinvigorated the racial equality struggle when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man Montgomery. Rosa Parks changed the world because of her one action that she did. It changed the face of racial equality because she was standing up for her civil rights. Rosa Parks’s act of civil disobedience was not pre-meditated.
Tamara Patterson is a lifestyle enthusiast, an English major at Medgar Evers College, and lives in Brooklyn.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott: Summary & Significance
The Montgomery bus boycott changed the way people lived and reacted to each other. The American civil rights movement began a long time ago, as early as the seventeenth century, with blacks and whites all protesting slavery together. The peak of the civil rights movement came in the 1950’s starting with the successful bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama. The civil rights movement was lead by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who preached nonviolence and love for your enemy.
“Love your enemies, we do not mean to love them as a friend or intimate. We mean what the Greeks called agape-a disinterested love for all mankind. This love is our regulating ideal and beloved community our ultimate goal. As we struggle here in Montgomery, we are cognizant that we have cosmic companionship and that the universe bends toward justice. We are moving from the black night of segregation to the bright daybreak of joy, from the midnight of Egyptian captivity to the glittering light of Canaan freedom”
In the Cradle of the Confederacy, life for the white and the colored citizens was completely segregated. Segregated schools, restaurants, public water fountains, amusement parks, and city buses were part of everyday life in Montgomery, Alabama.
“Every person operating a bus line should provide equal accommodations…in such a manner as to separate the white people from Negroes.” On Montgomery’s buses, black passengers were required by city law to sit in the back of the segregated bus. Negroes were required to pay their fare at the front of the bus, then get off and reboard from the rear of the bus. The front row seats were reserved for white people, which left the back of the bus or no man’s land for the blacks. There was no sign declaring the seating arrangements of the buses, but everyone knew them.
The Montgomery bus boycott started one of the greatest fights for civil rights in the history of America. Here in the old capital of the Confederacy,
“inspired by one women’s courage mobilized and organized by scores of grass-roots leaders in churches, community organizations, and political clubs called to new visions of their best possibilities by a young black preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr., a people was reawakening to its destiny. “
In 1953, the black community of Baton Rouge, Louisiana successfully petitioned their city council to end segregated seating on public buses. The new ordinance allowed the city buses to be seated on a first-come, first-served basis, with the blacks still beginning their seating at the rear of the bus. The bus drivers, who were all white, ignored the new ordinance and continued to save seats in front of the bus for white passengers. In an effort to demand that the city follow the new ordinance, the black community staged a one-day boycott of Baton Rouge’s buses. By the end of the day, Louisiana’s attorney general decided that the new ordinance was illegal and ruled that the bus drivers did not have to change the seating arrangements on the buses.
Three months later a second bus boycott was started by Reverend T.J. Jemison. The new boycott lasted about one week, and yet it forced the city officials to compromise. The compromise was to change the seating on the buses to first-come, first-served seating with two side seat up front reserved for whites, and one long seat in the back for the blacks.
The bus boycott in Baton Rouge was one of the first times a community of blacks had organized direct action against segregation and won. The victory in Baton Rouge was a small one in comparison to other civil rights battles and victories.
The hard work of Reverend Jemison and other organizers of the boycott had far-reaching implications on a movement that was just starting to take root in America. In 1954 the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision by the Supreme Court overshadowed Baton Rouge, but the ideas and lessons were not forgotten.
They were soon used 400 miles away in Montgomery, Alabama, where the most important boycott of the civil rights movement was about to begin.
The idea of “separate but equal” started in 1896 with a case called Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537 (1896). On June 2, 1896 Homer Adolph Plessy, who was one-eighth Negro and appeared to be white, boarded and took a vacant seat in a coach reserved for white people on the East Louisiana railroad in New Orleans bound for Covington, Louisiana.
The conductor ordered Plessy to move to a coach reserved for colored people, but Plessy refused. With the aid of a police officer, Plessy was forcibly ejected from the train, locked up in the New Orleans jail, and was taken before Judge Ferguson on the charge of violating Louisiana’s state segregation laws. In affirming Plessy’s conviction, the Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld the state law.
Plessy then took the case to the Supreme Court of America on a writ of error ( an older form of appeal that was abolished in 1929) saying that Louisiana’s segregation law was “unconstitutional as a denial of the Thirteenth Amendment and equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. ” The Plessy v. Ferguson case decision stated that separate but equal was fine as long as the accommodations were equal in the standard.
Case after case the “separate but equal” doctrine was followed but not reexamined. The equal part of the doctrine had no real meaning, because the Supreme Court refused to look beyond any lower court holdings to find if the segregated facilities for Negroes were equal to those for whites. Many Negro accommodations were said to be equal when in fact they were definitely inferior. The separate but equal doctrine
“Is one of the outstanding myths of American history for it is almost always true that while indeed separate, these facilities are far from equal. Throughout the segregated public institutions, Negroes have been denied equal share of tax supported service and facilities”
Stated President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1947.
In Topeka, Kansas the Brown’s, a Negro family, lived only four blacks from the white Sumner Elementary School. Linda Carol Brown, an eight year old girl had to attend a segregated school twenty-one blocks from her home because Kansas’s state segregation laws allowed cities to segregate Negro and white students in public elementary schools.
Oliver Brown and twelve other parents of Negro children asked that their children be admitted to the all-white Sumner School, which was much closer to home. The principle refused them admission, and the parents filed a suit in a federal district court against the Topeka Board of Education. The suit contended that the refusal to admit the children to the school was a denial of the “equal protection clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision of the principle lead to the birth of the most influential and important case of the Twentieth Century, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
The federal district court was sympathetic to the Negro cause and agreed that segregation in public schools had a negative effect on Negro children, but the court felt binded by the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, and refused to declare segregation unconstitutional. Mr. Brown then took the case directly to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Other cases involving school segregation were making their way to the Supreme Court from three different states-Delaware, Virginia, South Carolina-and the District of Columbia. All of the cases arrived around the same time as the Brown case. The cases all raised the same issue, and the state consolidated them under Brown v. Board of Education.
The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is a restriction that applies only to the states, so the case from the District of Columbia was “rested on the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment which is applicable to the Federal government “. The case was called Bolling v. Sharpe, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), and had the same outcome as the Brown case.
In front of the Supreme Court the arguments against segregation were presented by Thurgood Marshall, council for the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP is an organization which had directed five cases through the courts and which had won many legal cases for American Negroes. The states relied on primarily Plessy v. Ferguson in arguing for the continuation of segregation in public schools.
The Supreme Court Opinion statement delivered by Mr. Chief Justice Warren stated that
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others of the similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained, and deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. “
The Brown case was necessary for clearing the way towards full equality for the Negroes in America. Though the Brown case did not directly overturn the Plessy case decision, it made it perfectly clear that segregation in areas other than public education could not continue. The Brown case enabled Negroes to fight peacefully for their freedom through sit-ins, demonstrations, boycotts, and the exercise of their voting rights. With the Brown case decision and the end of school segregation came the start of the fall of white supremacy.
On December 1, 1955, the action of Mrs. Rosa Parks gave rise to a form of protest that leads the civil rights movement-nonviolent action. Mrs. Parks worked at a Montgomery department store pinning up hems, raising waistlines. When the store closed, Mrs. Parks boarded a Cleveland Avenue bus and took a seat behind the white section in row eleven. The bus was half full when Rosa Parks boarded but soon was filled leaving a white man standing.
“Y’all better make it light on yourself and let me have those seats,” said the bus driver James Blake as he ordered the black passengers in row eleven to move. Everyone except Mrs. Parks moved to the rear of the bus. “When he saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, ‘No I’m not.'” recalled Mrs. Rosa Parks. James Blake replied “Well, if you don’t stand up, I’m going to call the police and have you arrested,” with Rosa Parks bravely replaying “You may do that.” Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested for violating the Municipal code separating the races in Montgomery, Alabama.
Rosa Parks was taken to the city jail in a police car where she was booked for “violating the law banning integration “. At the police station she longed for a drink of water to soothe her dry throat, “but they wouldn’t permit me to drink out of the water fountain, it was for whites only. “Rosa Parks was convicted and fined ten dollars plus four dollars in court cost.
The arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955 was not the first time Mrs. Parks had challenged the Jim Crow laws of the South. In 1943, the same bus driver who arrested her in 1955, James Blake threw her off the bus for violating the segregation laws. During the 1940s the quiet, dignified older lady refused on several different occasions to submit to segregation laws.
“My resistance to being mistreated on the buses and anywhere else was just a regular thing with me and not just that day “stated Rosa after she was arrested. Mrs. Parks was an active member of organizations that fought for the equality of races. She was the first secretary for the Alabama State Conference of NAACP Branches, and she helped organize an NAACP Youth Council chapter in Montgomery.
News of Mrs. Park’s arrest soon reached E.D. Nixon, the man who headed the NAACP when Mrs. Parks was its secretary. Nixon tried to call one of the cities two black lawyers, Fred Gray, but Gray was not at home, so Mr. Nixon called Clifford Durr. Clifford Durr was a member of the Federal Communications Commission and had recently returned to Montgomery from Washington DC.
“About six o’clock that night the telephone rang, and Mr. Nixon said that he understood that Mrs. Parks was arrested, and he had called the jail, but they wouldn’t tell him why she had been arrested. So they thought that if Cliff called, a white lawyer, they might tell him. Cliff called, and they said she’s been arrested under the segregation laws…so Mr. Nixon raised the bond and signed the paper and got Mrs. Parks out,”
“Mrs. Parks, with your permission we can break down segregation on the bus with your case, “E.D. Nixon asked Rosa Parks. Parks consulted her mother and husband and deiced to let Mr. Nixon make her case into a cause, stating “I’ll go along with you Mr. Nixon. “
Nixon, at home, was making a list of black ministers in Montgomery, who would help support their boycott. Lacking the influence he once had in the NAACP, because of his background, Nixon deiced that the church would be better to go through to reach people, “because they(the church) had their hands on the masses. ” Progressive minister, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who E.D. Nixon knew through his work at the NAACP would be the first to receive the call to mobilize people.
At five A.M. Friday morning, the next day, Nixon called Rev. Abernathy, who knew most of the other minister and black leaders in Montgomery. After discussing the situation Nixon called eighteen other ministers and arranged a meeting for Friday evening to discuss Parks arrest and the actions they wanted to take.
Fred Gray called Jo-Ann Robinson Thursday night and told her about the arrest of Rosa Parks. Robinson knew Parks from the Colvin case and believed she would be the ideal person to go through a test case to challenge segregation. Robinson then proceeded to call the leaders of the Women’s Political Council, who urged her to start the boycott in support of Rosa Parks starting on Monday, Parks’ trial date. Jo-Ann Robinson made leaflets that described the boycott and had her students help her hand them out.
“This is for Monday, Dec. 5, 1955- Another Negro woman had been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus and give it to a white person. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. The women’s case will come up Monday. We are therefore asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to schools, or anywhere on Monday… “
Thousands of anonymous leaflets were passed secretly through Montgomery’s black neighborhoods. By the time the ministers and civil rights leaders met on Friday evening, word of the boycott had spread through the city. Reverend L. Roy Bennett, president of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, headed the meeting.
Rev. Bennett wanted to start the boycott on the following Monday because he feared that there was no time to waste, he also wanted the ministers to start organizing committees to lead the boycott. Some of the black leaders objected, calling for a debate on the pros and cons of having a boycott. Almost half of the leaders left in frustration before a decision was reached, will those remaining agreed to spread the word about the one-day boycott at their Sunday mass meeting.
E.D. Nixon did not attend the meeting on Friday evening that he arranged because he was at work, but before Nixon left he took one of Jo Ann Robinson’s leaflets and called Joe Azbell, a white reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser.
“He said, ‘I’ve got a big story for you and I want you to meet me,’ now E.D. doesn’t talk in long sentences, he’s very short and brusque…He said, ‘Can you meet me?’ I said, ‘Yeah I can meet you.’ So we met down at Union Station and he showed me one of these leaflets. And he said, ‘I want to tell you what we are going to do. We’re gonna boycott these buses. We’re tired of them fooling around with our women-they done it for the last time.’ So I said ‘Okay’, Nixon said, ‘You gonna put this on the front page?’ And I said ‘yeah I’m gonna try to. “
recalled Joe Azbell. The story of the upcoming boycott was on the front page of Sunday’s morning edition, spreading the word to all the Negroes in Montgomery. The piece Azbell ran on the boycott accused the NAACP of “planting that Parks woman” on the bus to stir things up and cause trouble. The Montgomery Advertiser said that the Negroes were about to “embrace the same negative solutions” as the hated White Citizens Council.
The ministers reinforced the call of the boycott at the pulpit that Sunday morning, but doubt remained in the minds of the boycott organizers. Would Montgomery’s black community unite for the boycott? Or would they ride the buses in fear of white retaliation? The clergymen had barely been able to agree on the one-day boycott, so why would the people follow them? To add to their worries it looked like it might rain.
On Monday morning the sky was very dark with huge rain clouds covering the sun. City police were on the watch for black “goon squads” that would keep black people off the buses. The police chief even went as far as to have two motorcycle cops follow each bus. By 5:30 A.M. Monday, a torn-off piece of cardboard appeared on a bus shelter at Court Square, one of the main downtown bus stops. The sign read “PEOPLE DON’T RIDE THE BUSES TODAY. DON’T RIDE IT FOR FREEDOM “
In the house of young Dr. Martian Luther King Jr. on Monday, December 4th, Dr. King was making coffee in his kitchen. The Friday night meeting had taken place at his church in Montgomery and he feared that the boycott would fail. Dr. Reverend King took his coffee and sat down and waited for the first bus on the South Jackson l0 line to go by his house at 6:00 A.M. The South Jackson line carried more Negroes than any other line in town “the first bus was usually jammed full with Negro domestics on their way to work “.
Dr. King was still in the kitchen when his wife Coretta cried “Martin, Martin, come quickly! ” Martin just made it to the window in time to see an empty bus go by. In a state of high excitement, King waited for the next bus to go by. It was empty. So was the third one. With spirits soaring high Dr. King drove over to Abernathy’s house in his car and the two of them drove all over town looking at the buses. All over Montgomery the buses were empty of black people. It looked like the boycott would be one hundred percent effective.
There were black students gladly hitchhiking to Alabama State. There were old men and women walking as far as twelve miles to their downtown jobs. People were riding mules, cows, horses, and driving horse-drawn buggies to work. Not one single person stood at a bus stop that wanted to ride the buses, just groups of young people who stood there cheering and singing “No riders today! ” as the buses pulled away from the stop.
Montgomery’s eighteen black-owned taxi companies had agreed to transport blacks for the same fare as they would pay on the bus-ten cents-on Monday morning the cabs were crammed with people. In the Alabama Journal a reporter described that first Monday.
“Negroes were on almost every street corner in the downtown area, silent, waiting for rides or moving about to keep warm, but few got on buses…scores of Negroes were walking, their lunches were in brown paper sacks under their arms. None spoke to white people. They exchanged little talk among themselves. It was an almost solemn event. “
A local black historian who had watched the days events unfolded stated that
“the ‘old unlearned Negroes’ were confused. It seemed they could not figure out if the police (ridding along with the buses) would arrest them or protect them if they attempted to ride the buses…the few Negroes that rode the buses were more confused. They found it difficult to get off without being embarrassed by other Negroes who waited at the bus stops throughout the city. Some were even seen ducking in the aisles as the buses passed various stops. “
At 3:00 P.M. that afternoon King and other leaders of the boycott met to set up a permanent organization to run the boycott. At Abernathy’s suggestion, they called it the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), to “stress the positive, uplift approach of their movement. ” The meeting was also called to elect officers. Rufus Lewis saw the election as a way to move the “well-entrenched ” Bennett aside in a diplomatic way. Quickly Lewis nominated King as president. Lewis attended King’s church and heard him speak often and knew he was a master speaker, also Dr. King was new in town.
“Rev. King was a young man, a very intelligent man. He had not been here long enough for the city fathers to put their hands on him. Usually, they’d find some young man just come to town…pat him on the back and tell him what a nice church he got. They’d say ‘Reverend, your suit don’t look so nice to represent so-and-so Baptist Church’…and they’d get him a suit…you’d have to watch out for that kind of thing”
recalls E.D. Nixon, about how officials in Montgomery treated black leaders.
With Rev. King as the new leader of the boycott, the organizers had to deiced whether or not to have the bus boycott extend beyond Monday. The one-day boycott had shown a strength that was never seen before in Montgomery. To extend the boycott would be a direct assault by blacks on the Jim Crow system. A serious and potentially dangerous event.
Several of the ministers were suggesting to leave the boycott as a one-day success, they said the boycott might fall apart if it rained or if the police started to arrest people. No one thought that it would last till the end of the work week, which was four days away.
E.D. Nixon in a thundering voice said that they should confront the whites no matter what. The time had come to take a stand!
“What is the matter with you people? Here you have been living off the sweat of these washwomen all these years and you have never done anything for them. Now you have a chance to pay them back, and you’re too damn scared to stand on your feet and be counted! The time has come to be grown, man or scared boys “
said Nixon gesturing his big hands at the group of boycott leaders when they wanted to quit.
Nixon was mad because his successor at the head of the NAACP in Alabama had refused to help or support the boycott unless he got approval from the national office.
“The man who was the President of the NAACP, said at that time, ‘Brother Nixon, I’ll have to wait until I talk to New York ( NAACP headquarters) to find out what they think of it.’ I said ‘Man we ain’t got time for that.’ He believed in doing everything by the book. And the book stated that you had to notify New York before you take a step like that. “
recalled E.D. Nixon on how the NAACP responded when he asked them for support.
The group agreed to wait until that night’s meeting and let the people decided if the boycott was to continue. The meeting was to be held at the Holt Street Baptist Church, because it was in a black section of town. They figured that Negroes would probably feel safer if they didn’t have to travel through white neighborhoods to get to the meeting.
Newly elected leader of the MIA, Dr. King had about twenty minutes to prepare a speech which he later called one of the most important speeches in his life. It took Doctor King fifteen minutes to park his car and make his way to the church at 7:00 P.M. There were no empty seats in the church and people were spilled into the aisles and through the doorways in the back, the church had been packed since five that afternoon. Outside the church thousands stood to listen to the speeches and preaching that was going on inside through loudspeakers. The meeting opened with “Onward Christian Soldiers”, followed by speeches from the boycott leaders.
Joe Azbell again covered the boycott story saying that
“the Holt Street Baptist Church was probably the most fired up, enthusiastic gathering of human beings that I’ve ever seen. I came down the street and I couldn’t believe there were so many cars. I parked many blocks from the church just to get a place for my car. I went up to the church, and they made way for me because I was the first white person there…I was two minutes late and they were already preaching, and that audience was so on fire that the preacher would get up and say, ‘Do you want your freedom?’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah, I want my freedom!’
The preacher would say, ‘Are you for what we are doing? ‘Yeah, go ahead, go ahead!’…and they were so excited…I’ve never heard singing like that…they were on fire for freedom. There was a spirit there no one could capture again…it was so powerful. And then King stood up, and most of them didn’t know how he was. And yet he was a master speaker…I went back and I wrote a special column, I wrote that this was the beginning of a flame that would go across America. “
Doctor King approached the podium with only a mental outline of his speech. If he choked in front of all of these people it would be the end of the boycott, but if he inspired them there was no telling what they could do together.
“We’re here this evening for serious business. We’re here in a general sense because first and foremost, we are American citizens, and we are determined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning…There comes a time when people get tired…tired of being segregated and humiliated tired of being kicked about the brutal feet of oppression. We have no alternative but to protest. For many years, we have shown an amazing patience.
We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were being treated. But we come here tonight to be saved, to be saved from patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice….If we are wrong then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong then the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. “
The crowd roared with ‘yeas’ and ‘right ons’, all through Dr. Kings speech. The strongest show of emotion and applause came when Rev. King bravely noted that
“If you protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations the historians will pause and say ‘There lived a great people-a black people-who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’…We will not retreat one inch in our fight to secure and hold our American citizenship. “
The church roared in approval of King’s speech which was followed by an introduction of Rosa Parks that received a standing ovation. Then Rev. Abernathy proceeded to recite the three demands of the boycott.
1)Courteous treatment of passengers on the buses.
2)Change the seating to a first-come, first-served basis with blacks starting at the rear, and whites starting at the front.
3)The hiring of black bus drivers on predominantly black routes.
Rev. Abernathy asked the people attending the meeting to vote and describe whether or not the boycott should continue. Throughout the church, people began to stand. At first in ones and twos. Soon every person was standing in the Holt Street Church approving the continuation of the boycott. The thousands of people standing outside cheered in a resounding “YES!”
“The fear left that had shackled us across the years-all left suddenly when we were in that church together ” recalled Abernathy on how people left the church unafraid, but how they were uncertain on how the city’s white leaders would respond to their boycott. The Montgomery police were their main concern.
A white police officer had a few months earlier shot a black man who had refused a bus driver order to get off the bus and reboard from the rear. The man demanded his dime back, and the police officer suddenly fired his gun, instantly killing the man. The dreaded Montgomery police were already harassing blacks who were peacefully waiting for the taxis.
Four days later the MIA, including King and attorney Fred Gray, met with the city commissioners and representatives of the bus company. The MIA presented their three demands, with King making it clear that they were not seeking an end to segregation through the boycott.
The bus company’s manager, James H. Bagely, and its attorney, Jack Crenshaw frantically denied that the bus drivers were regularly discourteous to black passengers. They rejected the idea of hiring black bus drivers and stated that the proposed seating plan was in violation of the state statute and city code.
Attorney Gray responded by showing that the seating plan was in no way a violation of the already existing segregation laws. The seating arrangements proposed were already in practice in another Alabama city, Mobil. The Mobil bus company was also run by the same bus company as the Montgomery bus line.
Attorney Crenshaw was adamant about the seating proposal. Commissioner Frank was ready to give in and accept the seating proposal, but Crenshaw argued
“I don’t see how we can do it within the law. If it were legal I would be the first to go along with it, but it just isn’t legal. The only way that it can be done is to change the segregation laws. “
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks on 1 December 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott was a 13-month mass protest that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) coordinated the boycott, and its president, Martin Luther King, Jr., became a prominent civil rights leader as international attention focused on Montgomery. The bus boycott demonstrated the potential for nonviolent mass protest to successfully challenge racial segregation and served as an example for other southern campaigns that followed. In Stride Toward Freedom, King’s 1958 memoir of the boycott, he declared the real meaning of the Montgomery bus boycott to be the power of a growing self-respect to animate the struggle for civil rights.
The roots of the bus boycott began years before the arrest of Rosa Parks. The Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of black professionals founded in 1946, had already turned their attention to Jim Crow practices on the Montgomery city buses. In a meeting with Mayor W. A. Gayle in March 1954, the council's members outlined the changes they sought for Montgomery’s bus system: no one standing over empty seats a decree that black individuals not be made to pay at the front of the bus and enter from the rear and a policy that would require buses to stop at every corner in black residential areas, as they did in white communities. When the meeting failed to produce any meaningful change, WPC president Jo Ann Robinson reiterated the council’s requests in a 21 May letter to Mayor Gayle, telling him, “There has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses” (“A Letter from the Women’s Political Council”).
A year after the WPC’s meeting with Mayor Gayle, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested for challenging segregation on a Montgomery bus. Seven months later, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger. Neither arrest, however, mobilized Montgomery’s black community like that of Rosa Parks later that year.
King recalled in his memoir that “Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history,” and because “her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted” she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community” (King, 44). Robinson and the WPC responded to Parks’ arrest by calling for a one-day protest of the city’s buses on 5 December 1955. Robinson prepared a series of leaflets at Alabama State College and organized groups to distribute them throughout the black community. Meanwhile, after securing bail for Parks with Clifford and Virginia Durr, E. D. Nixon, past leader of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), began to call local black leaders, including Ralph Abernathy and King, to organize a planning meeting. On 2 December, black ministers and leaders met at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and agreed to publicize the 5 December boycott. The planned protest received unexpected publicity in the weekend newspapers and in radio and television reports.
On 5 December, 90 percent of Montgomery’s black citizens stayed off the buses. That afternoon, the city’s ministers and leaders met to discuss the possibility of extending the boycott into a long-term campaign. During this meeting the MIA was formed, and King was elected president. Parks recalled: “The advantage of having Dr. King as president was that he was so new to Montgomery and to civil rights work that he hadn’t been there long enough to make any strong friends or enemies” (Parks, 136).
That evening, at a mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, the MIA voted to continue the boycott. King spoke to several thousand people at the meeting: “I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong.… If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong” (Papers 3:73). After unsuccessful talks with city commissioners and bus company officials, on 8 December the MIA issued a formal list of demands: courteous treatment by bus operators first-come, first-served seating for all, with blacks seating from the rear and whites from the front and black bus operators on predominately black routes.
The demands were not met, and Montgomery’s black residents stayed off the buses through 1956, despite efforts by city officials and white citizens to defeat the boycott. After the city began to penalize black taxi drivers for aiding the boycotters, the MIA organized a carpool. Following the advice of T. J. Jemison, who had organized a carpool during a 1953 bus boycott in Baton Rouge, the MIA developed an intricate carpool system of about 300 cars. Robert Hughes and others from the Alabama Council for Human Relations organized meetings between the MIA and city officials, but no agreements were reached.
In early 1956, the homes of King and E. D. Nixon were bombed. King was able to calm the crowd that gathered at his home by declaring: “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” (Papers 3:115). City officials obtained injunctions against the boycott in February 1956, and indicted over 80 boycott leaders under a 1921 law prohibiting conspiracies that interfered with lawful business. King was tried and convicted on the charge and ordered to pay $500 or serve 386 days in jail in the case State of Alabama v. M. L. King, Jr. Despite this resistance, the boycott continued.
Although most of the publicity about the protest was centered on the actions of black ministers, women played crucial roles in the success of the boycott. Women such as Robinson, Johnnie Carr, and Irene West sustained the MIA committees and volunteer networks. Mary Fair Burks of the WPC also attributed the success of the boycott to “the nameless cooks and maids who walked endless miles for a year to bring about the breach in the walls of segregation” (Burks, “Trailblazers,” 82). In his memoir, King quotes an elderly woman who proclaimed that she had joined the boycott not for her own benefit but for the good of her children and grandchildren (King, 78).
National coverage of the boycott and King’s trial resulted in support from people outside Montgomery. In early 1956 veteran pacifists Bayard Rustin and Glenn E. Smiley visited Montgomery and offered King advice on the application of Gandhian techniques and nonviolence to American race relations. Rustin, Ella Baker, and Stanley Levison founded In Friendship to raise funds in the North for southern civil rights efforts, including the bus boycott. King absorbed ideas from these proponents of nonviolent direct action and crafted his own syntheses of Gandhian principles of nonviolence. He said: “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work” (Rowland, “2,500 Here Hail”). Other followers of Gandhian ideas such as Richard Gregg, William Stuart Nelson, and Homer Jack wrote the MIA offering support.
Montgomery Bus Boycott - Facts, Significance and Rosa Parks - HISTORY
Montgomery Bus Boycott
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was one of the major events in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. It signaled that a peaceful protest could result in the changing of laws to protect the equal rights of all people regardless of race.
Before 1955, segregation between the races was common in the south. This meant that public areas such as schools, rest rooms, water fountains, and restaurants had separate areas for black people and white people. This was also true of public transportation such as buses and trains. There were areas where black people could sit and other areas where white people could sit.
Rosa Parks by Unknown
On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was taking the bus home from work in Montgomery, Alabama. She was already sitting down and was in the row closest to the front for black people. When the bus began to fill up, the driver told the people in Rosa's row to move back in order to make room for a white passenger. Rosa was tired of being treated like a second class person. She refused to move. Rosa was then arrested and fined $10.
Although other people had been arrested for similar infractions, it was Rosa's arrest that sparked a protest against segregation. Civil rights leaders and ministers got together to organize a day to boycott the buses. That meant that for one day black people would not ride the buses. They picked December 5th. They handed out pamphlets so people would know what to do and on December 5th around 90% of black people in Montgomery did not ride the buses.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The boycott was planned at a meeting in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s church. They formed a group called the Montgomery Improvement Association with Martin Luther King, Jr. as the leader. After the first day of the boycott, the group voted to continue the boycott. King made a speech about the boycott where he said "If we are wrong, the Supreme Court is wrong, …the Constitution is wrong, . God Almighty is wrong."
In order to get to work, black people carpooled, walked, rode bicycles, and used horse-drawn buggies. Black taxi drivers lowered their fares to ten cents, which was the same price as a bus fare. Despite not riding the bus, black people found ways to travel by organizing and working together.
Some white people were not happy with the boycott. The government got involved by fining taxi drivers who did not charge at least 45 cents for a ride. They also indicted many of the leaders on the grounds that they were interfering with a business. Martin Luther King Jr. was ordered to pay a $500 fine. He ended up getting arrested and spent two weeks in jail.
Some of the white citizens turned to violence. They firebombed Martin Luther King Jr.'s home as well as several black churches. Sometimes the boycotters were attacked while walking. Despite this, King was adamant that the protests remain non-violent. In a speech to some angry protesters he said "We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us."
How long did the boycott last?
The boycott lasted for over a year. It finally ended on December 20, 1956 after 381 days.
President Obama in the Rosa Parks Bus
by Pete Souza
The Montgomery Bus Boycott brought the subject of racial segregation to the forefront of American politics. A lawsuit was filed against the racial segregation laws. On June 4, 1956 the laws were determined unconstitutional. The boycott had worked in that black people were now allowed to sit wherever they wanted to on the bus. In addition, the boycott had created a new leader for the civil rights movement in Martin Luther King, Jr.
Rosa Parks Day 2020: 9 Interesting Facts About Notable American Activist, a Key Figure in Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks Facts: It will be the 20th anniversary of the Rosa Parks Day celebrations in the United States (US), on December 1, this year. The US national day is observed to honour the life and achievements of a civil rights activist Rosa Parks. The first observance of the official Rosa Parks Day took place in 2000 when the California State Legislature sanctioned it. The event holds a remarkable significance in the history of the USA. There’s a lot to find out about the notable American activist, Rosa Parks, who played a crucial role in the popular ‘Montgomery bus boycott’, a movement for equal rights. If you are searching for interesting things about Rosa Parks, then you have arrived at the right place. Lesser-Known Facts About Former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback and American Activist.
1. Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born on February 4, 1913, in Alabama, in the US. Rosa came from a humble background – her mother (Leona Edwards) was a teacher, and his father (James McCauley) was a carpenter. Not many people know that Rosa had a liking for sewing from a young age.
2. After the Montgomery episode in 1955, Rosa Parks soon became an international icon due to her fight against racial injustice. She continued her work in the next decades, especially helping the people of the black community, by fighting the cases of people who were political prisoners.
3. In the year 1992, Rosa Parks wrote her autobiography ‘My Story’, in which she tells about the ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’, and what made her take that decision. It was written to inspire the younger generation, and educate them about racial injustice prevalent in the US.
4. Recalling about the history-changing episode on December 1, Rosa said, “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
5. In 2005, Rosa Parks died to natural causes aged 92. She and her husband didn’t have any children. However, she was survived by her sister-in-law, and several cousins, nieces, and nephews. Montgomery and Detroit city officials tied black ribbons on the front seats of the buses, until her funeral, to honour the life and achievements of Rosa.
6. In 1976, to commemorate Rosa Park’s accomplishments, the Detroit administration renamed 12th Street as ‘Rosa Parks Boulevard’.
7. Rosa Parks received the Martin Luther King Jr Award in 1980, Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996, Congressional Gold Medal in 1999. She was also featured in the Times magazine in 2000, as one of the 20 most influential and iconic figures of the 20th century.
8. In 2019, Mattel introduced a Barbie doll, in a similarity of Rosa Parks, was released in the market in their range of ‘Inspiring Women’. In 2020, popular rapper Nicki Minaj mentioned Rosa Parks in one of her famous songs ‘Yiked’.
9. Rosa Parks is fondly remembered as the ‘the first lady of civil rights’, and ‘mother of the freedom movement’ in the US.
Rosa Parks left a rich legacy behind. Her life was dedicated to fighting for the causes of the people of the black community who faced racial injustice in their daily life. Rosa became a beacon of light for millions of people, at the time when racial segregation was at the peak. As we near the iconic date, December 1, we at LatestLY thank her enough and wish her soul rests in peace.
Disclaimer: The above piece of information is collated from different sources on the internet. It doesn’t mean to demean or insult anybody. The author of the article and LY does not vouch for the authenticity of the article. We hope you enjoyed reading about Rosa Parks as much as we did collate it for you!
Montgomery Bus Boycott - Facts, Significance and Rosa Parks - HISTORY
Nearly 50 years ago, Rosa Parks became a symbol of the mass movement against racism that eventually forced the dismantling of the system of official segregation in the American South. Her arrest on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a year-long bus boycott, an event that is generally seen as the beginning of a decade-long battle against segregation that mobilized millions and won the support of workers all over the world.
After her death two weeks ago, however, Mrs. Parks was eulogized hypocritically by the very forces that opposed the struggle for civil rights and today remain the bitterest enemies of every struggle for equality and social progress.
George W. Bush issued a statement from the White House. His Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke at services for Mrs. Parks in Alabama. The Republican-led Congress voted to allow her body to lie under the Capitol Rotunda, the first time this honor has ever been bestowed upon a woman.
Who are they to mourn Rosa Parks? They are, after all, the political heirs of everything she fought against. The modern Republican Party is the product of 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater’s opposition to civil rights and 1968 and 1972 election victor Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” winning a solid base of support among right-wing and racist forces in the formerly solid Democratic South. The elder President Bush, father of the present occupant of the White House, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in Texas in 1964 on a platform of opposition to the civil rights legislation that was then before Congress.
Moreover, this party today holds office largely through the disenfranchisement of black voters. It presides over the most wretched social conditions—in many respects worse than those of a half century ago—with the misery concentrated especially among blacks and other minorities, as exposed before the entire world only two months ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The fact that Bush and the entire political establishment are allowed to “celebrate” the life of Rosa Parks under these conditions highlights the vast degeneration that has taken place in the official civil rights movement, and the need for a sober examination of the history of this movement and its decay.
Notwithstanding the courage and sacrifices of its participants, the limited character of the achievements of the civil rights movement is more apparent with every passing day. Legal segregation, the Jim Crow system in the South, was ended, but equality was not attained. De facto segregation remains and has even grown in many parts of the country. And legal protections have not led to economic progress and security for the vast majority.
Between the launching of the Montgomery bus boycott and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, millions challenged the status quo. Today, what remains of the civil rights establishment, including Jesse Jackson and various black Democrats in Congress, represents a privileged upper-middle-class layer that joins hands to celebrate the status quo, not to challenge it.
The virtual canonization of Rosa Parks is part of this celebration. There was something crude and fraudulent about the two weeks of orchestrated pomp and ceremonial tributes, seeking to elevate Parks to a kind of semi-official sainthood, stripped of all political and historical content.
Rosa Parks was a courageous woman, an activist who played an important symbolic role in the early years of the civil rights movement. She was not a political leader, strategist or thinker, and her active role ended many years ago. To say this is not to disparage her contributions. The purpose of the trite official tributes is to discourage any serious examination of the experiences of Rosa Parks, and to turn her instead into a harmless icon, to be used to lull masses of workers and youth with the myth instead of the reality of the unfinished struggle for social equality.
Rosa Parks was 42 when she was arrested and became famous almost overnight, but her whole life up to that point had prepared her for this role. Millions could identify with her precisely because her life was in many respects typical. She was born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1913, and grew up in a world in which lynchings of blacks were still a regular occurrence. In the century after the Civil War, the black population, though freed from Southern slavery, remained on the lowest rungs of the super-exploited working class and the rural poor. In the South, this was reinforced by legal segregation and brutal terror.
Discrimination against African Americans in public transportation was part and parcel of the system of segregation and second-class citizenship. In Montgomery, although they made up the vast majority of bus riders, black passengers were not allowed to sit in the first four rows of city buses. They could sit in the middle rows, but only until white passengers sought those seats, after which blacks were forced to sit in the rear, or stand or leave the bus. Parks herself had been thrown off a bus in 1943 for challenging this discriminatory treatment.
When she defied the driver’s demand to give up her seat on that fateful December day in 1955, Parks had not been planning to become the spokeswoman of a mass movement. She acted because she was “fed up,” as one longtime friend later said. “She was in her 40s. She was not a child. There comes a point where you say, ‘No, I’m a full citizen, too. This is not the way I should be treated.’”
Rosa Parks’s struggle did not begin in 1955, or even in 1943. She and her husband became active in the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in the 1930s. Among her activities during this period was raising funds for the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black teenagers framed for rape in 1931, whose persecution sparked an international defense campaign.
Some months before her arrest, Mrs. Parks had attended a leadership conference at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, an interracial organization that was redbaited during this period as run by “Communist sympathizers.” Rosa Parks later said that at Highlander she “gained strength to persevere in my work for freedom, not just for blacks but for all oppressed peoples.”
The Montgomery bus boycott
Mrs. Parks had worked closely with E.D. Nixon, a black trade unionist in Montgomery, the head of the local branch of the sleeping car porters’ union and a longtime fighter for voting rights and other issues. When Nixon heard that she had been arrested, he came to bail her out of jail and urged her to fight back publicly in order to challenge the whole system of discrimination on the city’s buses.
A boycott of the buses was planned for Monday, December 5. Most black commuters, who numbered 40,000 at that time, walked to work that day, and the success of the action led to the decision at a mass rally that night to continue the action until demands for equal and courteous treatment were met.
The boycott, which soon came under the leadership of the 26-year-old Martin Luther King, lasted 381 days, until November 14, 1956, after the Supreme Court handed down a ruling outlawing segregation in public transport. During this period, the homes of civil rights activists were firebombed and telephoned death threats were a regular occurrence. Tens of thousands of working people walked up to 20 miles daily in order to fight for their human dignity and basic democratic rights.
By successfully challenging the Jim Crow laws, the boycott sparked a growing movement, including the lunch counter sit-ins that began in February 1960 and swept through the South. Voter registration campaigns and other mass actions eventually compelled the political establishment in Washington to enact certain reforms.
A consensus developed within the ruling class in favor of dismantling the old Jim Crow system. This was in part a result of mass pressure from below, and in part because of the political needs of the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Johnson Administration’s “War on Poverty.” Legally sanctioned segregation became a thing of the past.
The great democratic questions posed by the civil rights struggle of that period, however, inseparably bound up with the struggle for decent jobs, housing, health care and education, without which the legal statutes proclaiming equality remained in stark contradiction to the realities of America’s class society.
Half a century later, gains that were won in earlier struggles have been systematically demolished. Public education has become a public scandal, homelessness has grown and become a permanent feature of urban life, and health care and all essential services continue to deteriorate for the great majority.
The civil rights movement was undoubtedly inspired by the mass struggles of the American working class in the 1930s and the immediate post-World War II period to organize industrial unions and fight for improved wages and conditions. Millions of blacks migrated to the cities in both the North and South during this period, joining trade unions and demanding their basic rights. This movement had the potential of joining up with the struggles of every other section of the working class. Its degeneration was not inevitable, but it required a socialist working class perspective and leadership.
The growing civil rights struggles, however, coincided with the bureaucratization of the labor movement. Socialists and other left-wingers were purged from the unions as the witchhunt that would lead to McCarthyism got underway in the late 1940s. The CIO federation of industrial unions had expelled 10 of its affiliates for “communist” influence back in 1948. The AFL-CIO bureaucracy, formed out of the merger of the CIO and the old AFL in the same year the Montgomery bus boycott was launched, was indifferent if not openly hostile to the struggle against racism.
The Communist Party played its own destructive role in this period, discrediting the struggle for socialism and strengthening the anticommunist forces through its slavish support for the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR. This support for the nationalist Soviet bureaucracy found its clearest expression in the American Stalinists’ efforts to keep the working class tied to the Democratic Party.
When the mass movement of black workers and youth gathered strength, therefore, the struggles of black and white workers were kept largely separate. King, while fighting against the more conservative elements in the NAACP and elsewhere, based himself on religious pacifism and an appeal for justice from the capitalist state. He took an ambivalent attitude toward the witchhunt, resisting it some of the time, but never seeking to mobilize and unite the working class against it. An orientation to the Democratic Party was the key element, as the civil rights movement adopted the same class-collaborationist and reformist perspective that guided the unions.
As the struggles deepened in the 1960s, exploding in the form of the ghetto riots, political divisions grew within the movement, with more militant sections rejecting the bourgeois pacifism of its leadership. Such forces as Malcolm X (before his assassination in 1965) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were unable to put forward a working class alternative, however. The militancy was increasingly channeled into the blind alley of black nationalism and separatism. King, partly in response to the growing internal crisis, called for a refocused struggle against poverty and inequality, pointing toward the necessity of a program to unite the working class. He also courageously defied official pressure and the rest of the civil rights establishment in denouncing the US war in Vietnam, but was assassinated shortly afterward, in April 1968.
These were the political conditions in which the period of mass civil rights struggles was brought to an end. Even more fundamentally, the pressure of international events—the immense costs of the war in Vietnam and the onset of US capitalism’s crisis and decline—precluded any sustained policy of reform.
The dismantling of segregation was used to cultivate a small section of the black middle class. The death of King was followed by increasing calls for “black capitalism”—most notably by Richard Nixon—and affirmative action, aimed at building up a black bourgeoisie and upper middle class, a layer of politicians, bureaucrats and professionals who were given a stake in the profit system.
Black mayors and other elected officials were given the job of presiding over the decay of the cities while maintaining social peace and, where that proved too difficult, deploying the forces of “law and order” against the working class. Political figures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were called upon to “keep hope alive” through racial or populist demagogy, safely within the confines of the Democratic Party. Jackson represented the most opportunist elements within the civil rights movement, and was among the first to embrace the slogan of “black capitalism.” Sharpton epitomizes the demagogues who have fashioned careers for themselves on the ruins of the movement.
As the end result of this socio-political process, a very small layer benefited handsomely, while reproducing the same fundamental class division that runs through society as a whole—between the working class majority on one side and the wealthy elite and upper-middle-class layers closest to it on the other.
One expression of this state of affairs was the identical statements by Condoleezza Rica and Oprah Winfrey in recent days. The black secretary of state and the multimillionaire talk show hostess and celebrity each declared that they would not be where they are if not for Rosa Parks.
They said perhaps more than they intended. They would not be rich and powerful without the struggle of Rosa Parks and millions of others. They had not conducted the struggle, but rather benefited from the sacrifices of others.
It is hard to believe that Rosa Parks wanted to be remembered for paving the way for the black spokeswoman for war crimes in Iraq and around the world or for making it possible for a handful of African Americans to become fabulously rich, while poverty, hunger and every form of social misery grow.
In the final analysis, the transformation of the civil rights organizations into conservative defenders of privilege was a function of the subordination of the struggles of blacks against discrimination and segregation to the Democrats.
This struggle today, more than ever before, can be prosecuted only through a fight for the long-delayed political independence of the working class, breaking at last with the Democratic Party, the graveyard of every social struggle of the past century.
Only the socialist transformation of society can achieve the goals that animated millions in the struggles with which Rosa Parks’ name will always be associated.
Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the Power of Non-Violent Mass Protest
In 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, an African American woman found a seat in the “Colored Section” of the city bus. A few stops down, the bus driver told her to make room for white passengers and move further back. The woman refused and was arrested.
This story brings to mind Rosa Parks and her quiet defiance in the face of racial segregation. It also can describe a number of brave women who came before her and also took a stand against the inequalities they experienced on Montgomery city busses.
Illustration of bus where Rosa Parks sat, December 1, 1955 Civil Case 1147 Browder, et al v. Gayle, et. al U.S. District Court for Middle District of Alabama, Northern (Montgomery) Division Record Group 21: Records of the District Court of the United States National Archives and Records Administration-Southeast Region, East Point, GA. National Archives Identifier 596069
As we head into Black History Month, we recognize many well-known heroes who stand out as we learn about the Civil Rights Movement. And Rosa Parks is one of those heroes. Her courage in confronting racial prejudice sparked a 13-month protest that led to a Supreme Court ruling, the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system, and a pattern of non-violence Civil Rights leaders followed for the next decade.
That day, Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks was riding home from her job as a seamstress. At the time, city bus drivers were authorized to enforce segregation laws on their vehicles, and every bus had clearly designated seating for white and black passengers. Parks sat in the front row of the designated “Colored Section,” but as passengers boarded, the designated section for white people filled to capacity.
The bus driver, James Blake, believing he was authorized to do so, instructed Parks and three other African American passengers to give their seats to white passengers. Parks refused. As a leader in the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she was active in protesting the unequal conditions of her local area.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” she explained of that day in her book, Rosa Parks: My Story.
The fingerprint Card of Rosa Parks when she was arrested for violating segregation laws in Alabama.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
City police arrested Parks, and local Civil Rights leaders gathered to strategize. Under the direction of Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, and Martin Luther King Jr., then-president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, black men and women boycotted the Montgomery busses Dec. 5, 1955. At first, it was meant to be a one-day boycott, but that evening, these leaders voted to continue the boycott until busses were desegregated.
As King said at the community meeting that evening, “I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong .… If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.”
History credits Parks as the spark for this momentous event in the Civil Rights Movement. But Montgomery Civil Rights leaders and others had been working to end the bus practice years before as well.
Black men and women made up the vast majority of bus riders in Montgomery, and frequently suffered prejudice and humiliation during these rides. Robinson suggested the possibility of a bus boycott in a May 21, 1954 letter to the city’s mayor, William Gayle. Her letter asked the Mayor to change city law to allow the following:
“1. … Negroes to sit from back towards front, and whites from front toward back until all the seats are taken.
“2. That Negroes not be asked or forced to pay fare at front end and got the rear of the bus to enter.
“3. That busses stop at every corner in residential sections occupied by Negroes as they do in communities where whites reside.”
The mayor ignored these requests, so Robinson and the WPC started planning a boycott.
Prior to Parks’ arrest, a few other African American women were also arrested while disobeying the bus segregation laws, including Aurelia Browder, Viola White, Geneva Johnson, Katie Wingfield, Susie McDonald, Epsie Worthy, Mary Louise Smith and Claudette Colvin. For various reasons, the WPC and the MIA did not choose them as the face of the bus boycott.
“Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history,” King said in his memoir, “[because] her character was impeccable and her dedication deep-rooted,” and she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community.”
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was not only successful because of Parks and other Civil Rights leaders, but also because of many unsung heroes — mostly women — who stopped riding the bus. Mary Fair Burks of the WPC was one of many who worked behind the scenes to support the boycott. She attributed the boycott’s success to “the nameless cooks and maids who walked endless miles for a year to bring about the breach in the walls of segregation.”
Browder vs. Gayle
Montgomery city finally desegregated buses after the successful district court petition, Aurelia S. Browder v. William A. Gayle. Browder, McDonald, Colvin and Smith stood as plaintiffs for the case. The case traveled through the courts to the United State Supreme Court, where they struck down Montgomery’s segregation practice Dec. 17, 1956. The bus boycott ended Dec. 20, and busses were integrated the following day.
Of the boycott efforts, King said, “We came to see that, in the long run, it is more honorable to walk in dignity than ride in humiliation. So … we decided to substitute tired feet for tired souls, and walk the streets of Montgomery.”
The success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott set a precedent for the power of non-violent mass protest in overturning racist laws during the Civil Rights Movement.
Black activists faced backlash from the white community
The backlash against activists was persistent and often violent. During the boycott, the activists were regularly harassed by police offering trivial excuses, especially by cops who had worked as bus drivers before being made redundant following the bus company's loss of income. The movement's prominent figures were threatened and attacked. Lawyer Fred Gray was pulled over regularly for trumped up traffic violations, received threatening phone calls, and was even arrested for a tenuous legal technicality. Police broke the window of Jo Ann Robinson's house, and poured acid over her car. On January 26, 1956, King was arrested for the first time, for allegedly going 5mph over the speed limit. He was released and fined, but four days later his home was bombed. King would spend the rest of his life as a target: and there are things we still don't know about MLK's death.
The boycott officially ended on December 20, 1956, the day the Supreme Court ordered Montgomery to actually carry out desegregation on buses. A few days later, someone fired a gun into King's house. On December 28, snipers attacked a desegregated bus, shooting a pregnant woman in both legs (fortunately she survived.) The city canceled all bus services after 5pm — a problem for people trying to get back from work. In January 1957, several black churches and the homes of Robert Graetz and Ralph Abernathy were bombed. Seven white people were arrested, but none were ultimately convicted.