The Montgomery Bus Boycott

A replica of the bus that civil rights activist Rosa Parks rode on.
A replica of the bus that civil rights icon Rosa Parks rode on December 1, 1955, drives down Dexter Street October 28, 2005 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

What Was the Montgomery Bus Boycott?

After Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, the black community in Montgomery, Alabama planned a bus boycott for December 5, 1955.

Originally planned for just one day, the Montgomery Bus Boycott ultimately lasted 381 days, ending on December 21, 1956. The bus boycott brought the then-unknown Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

into the limelight and succeeded in getting the U.S. Supreme Court to declare bus segregation unconstitutional.

In Black and White

Although northern blacks experienced unfair treatment, southern blacks were exhausted from over-the-top Jim Crow laws. The races were to be separated from birth in segregated hospitals until their burials in segregated graveyards.

Schools, churches, movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, public restrooms, even drinking fountains were segregated. The "Whites Only" or "Coloreds Only" theology was law in both practice and mindset.

Rules on the Bus

For the most part, blacks took segregation in stride, not desiring to offend whites and draw the wrath of the midnight-riding Ku Klux Klan.

But nothing raised the ire of southern blacks more than racially-segregated public transit, especially in Montgomery, Alabama. Although 40,000 blacks rode buses daily, 70 percent of the ridership, they got no respect.

Many of the white drivers were very cruel.

After paying a 10-cent fare, black patrons had to get off the bus and reenter through the rear door. Many times, the driver intentionally pulled off before the passenger re-boarded.

Buses were brimming with blacks daily, while the first ten whites-only seats remained mostly empty.

As the back of the bus and aisles filled up with black passengers, they could do no more than stand over empty seats in the whites-only section.

Furthermore, the separation line between black and white sections was moved at the driver's whim. If choosing to reduce the bus' black section for more seating for whites, the driver was supported by city and state law.

Blacks were not even allowed to sit on the same row as a white passenger. If one black passenger yielded their seat to a white passenger, the three blacks seated beside and across from the white passenger had to move.

Pregnant black women stood to let white men sit. Elderly blacks were expected to yield their seats to white children. Nothing reminded blacks of their second-class citizenship more than a bus ride in Montgomery.

The Breaking Point

On August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy from Chicago was kidnapped and brutally murdered in Mississippi for whistling at white shopowner Roy Bryant's wife. When Emmett's mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, learned the county sheriff had her son hastily buried after being pulled from the Tallahatchie River, she demanded his body be returned to Chicago.

Mamie resolved to show the world the hideous face of Jim Crow by allowing Emmett's body to be publicly viewed.

Pictures of Emmett’s bloated, mutilated face were seen around the nation when they were published in Jet Magazine. The anger generated over Emmett Till’s murder fueled the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.

Claudette Colvin Makes a Stand

On March 2, 1955, 15-year-old, Alabama-native Claudette Colvin boarded a bus filled with blacks and only a few whites.

When the driver ordered Colvin, who was seated behind the white section, to move further back, she refused. The driver bellowed, whites cursed, and blacks pleaded with Colvin. When police arrived, they handcuffed her and dragged Colvin off the bus, screaming about her constitutional rights.

Colvin's arrest jolted the black community, and E.D. Nixon needed this moment. Nixon was the respected founder of Montgomery's NAACP, Pullman Porter union-leader, and the go-to person within the black community in dealings with white city officials.

Colvin was charged with resisting arrest and segregation-law violations. Nixon contacted white equal-rights attorney Clifford Durr to arrange bail for Colvin. He then contacted Fred Gray, a native-Alabamian and one of two black attorneys in Montgomery to defend Colvin.

The guilty verdict devastated Colvin. Nixon felt it was time to challenge bus segregation in federal court; however, Nixon required a better test case than Colvin, who was short-tempered, poor, and pregnant.

Rosa Parks: Standing Up by Sitting Down

Rosa Parks, dedicated secretary of the NAACP since 1943 and its youth advisor, taught students (including Claudette Colvin) to challenge segregation whenever possible.

On December 1, 1955, Parks was no more tired than usual -- only tired of giving in to every unfair whim of racist whites. The 42-year-old seamstress boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Parks sat just behind the whites-only section with three other black passengers in the same row. Soon the bus was filled completely, with a white man left standing. The driver rudely demanded the entire row where Parks sat to move to the back. Reluctantly, the three other blacks moved, but Rosa sat.

Parks had resolved not to yield her blacks-only seat to a white person.

The driver demanded Parks move or he would call the police. Parks gave him permission to, as several scared blacks deboarded. Parks began worrying she might be brutalized.

When police arrived, Parks was handcuffed and arrested. Taken to city jail and booked, she was Permitted one call, which she used to call home to speak with her mother. Her mother then called both Parks' husband, who got Parks out of jail, and E.D. Nixon, who realized the perfect test case had been dropped in his lap.

The Perfect Test Case

That night at the Parks' home, Nixon and Attorney Durr asked permission to use her case to outlaw segregated buses. Rosa Parks's mother and husband argued she would likely be killed.

Rosa Parks, however, was determined. She hadn't planned to become a test case, but she refused to accept the humiliation of bus segregation any longer.

Parks' trial was set for Monday, December 5th.

A One Day Bus Boycott

When 25-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Montgomery in 1954 to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he didn't plan to head a movement. But in December 1955, E.D. Nixon and long-time civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy contacted King and other clergymen to plan a citywide bus boycott.

The NAACP, clergy, and Women’s Political Council (WPC) met in King's church basement. The group drafted demands to the bus company: courteous treatment, hiring black drivers to serve black neighborhoods, and first-come, first-served seating. African-Americans would boycott buses on Monday, December 5th to show they meant business.

Approximately 52,500 leaflets were distributed everywhere, with black newspapers and radio stations surprisingly publicizing the boycott. Asking blacks not to ride the bus, even for freedom, was a tall order. It was cold and there was always white retaliation to consider. Organizers could only hope.

But on December 5, 1955, save for the usual few whites and a handful of timid blacks, bus-after-empty-bus rattled through Montgomery streets. Overnight, word had spread and nearly 40,000 black citizens complied. The confounded mayor dispatched police to protect the few black bus-riders from nonexistent “Negro goon squads.”

That same Monday, December 5, hundreds greeted Rosa Parks and Attorney Gray outside the segregated courthouse. As expected, Parks was found guilty of violating segregation laws and fined $14. Gray filed an appeal, the initial step in challenging bus segregation in federal court.

Lengthening the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Since the one-day boycott was successful, E.D. Nixon held a second meeting to discuss the idea of extending the boycott. Many of the black clergymen, however, wanted to limit the boycott and keep its organizers a secret to abate Montgomery's wrath. Frustrated, Nixon threatened to expose the ministers as cowards.

By meeting-end, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) was formed and King became the unanimously-elected president and boycott spokesperson. That evening, King addressed well-over 5,000 highly-charged individuals at Holt Street Baptist Church in a powerful rallying cry to protest nonviolently.

After King's speech, Rev. Ralph Abernathy presented Rosa Parks and asked the crowd if the boycott should continue. Eventually, every person was cheering their approval.

In order for the longer bus boycott to have any chance of succeeding, bus boycotters needed a reliable method of transportation. Supporters were asked to volunteer their vehicles.

Alternative Transportation

Precious few blacks owned cars, and those that did balked at transporting strangers to and fro. King and other clergy offered their cars, and by night's-end, 150 volunteers signed up.

The MIA also bought 30 station wagons with donations from white sympathizers, including Rev. Graetz, pastor of an all-black Lutheran congregation. Eventually, 300 black-owned vehicles transported thousands of boycotters each day.

Black taxi owners, who'd transported passengers for a dime (the same price as bus fare) during the one-day boycott, continued. African-American postal workers developed an elaborate system of 48 dispatch and 42 pickup points where boycotters gathered.

Thousands more walked -- some up to 20 miles a day. Through storms, freezing temps, car-breakdowns, scheduling conflicts, and the ever-present spectre of violence, Montgomery's blacks got where they needed to be.

Getting Tough

Unworried, Mayor W.A. Gayle joked that the boycott would end after the first rain. However, when it didn't end by January 1956, the bus company and downtown storeowners, bleeding red ink, mobbed city hall. The companies demanded the mayor get tough with blacks.

Tempers flaring, Gayle announced officials would no longer entertain boycotter demands. Police Commissioner Sellers threatened arrest of cabdrivers charging less than a 45-cent fare to boycotters. The White Citizen Council convinced insurance companies to cancel coverage of boycott drivers.

Police harassed boycotters at pick-up points, stopped and searched drivers for no reason, and issued tickets for phantom violations. Many boycotters received life-threatening letters and calls.

On January 30, 1956, while Martin Luther King is speaking at a meeting, his house is bombed. Luckily, his family is not injured in the explosion. Two nights later, a bomb exploded in front of E. D. Nixon’s home.

Trying to Take Down the Boycott’s Leaders

Officials agreed that if boycott leaders were removed, then the boycott would end. A judge convened a special grand jury and assembled witnesses to identify boycott leaders. On February 21, 1956, 115 black drivers, including King and other leaders, were indicted for inciting violence without legal excuse.

Indicted boycott leader Nixon didn't wait to be arrested; he turned himself in, and others followed. Hundreds gathered outside the jailhouse cheering, as one-by-one indicted boycotters, including King, showed up to be booked, fingerprinted, photographed, and released. Blacks, once petrified of the law, were now proud to defy it.

Meanwhile, Attorney Gray filed a lawsuit in federal court against bus segregation on behalf of Claudette Colvin and four others. Rosa Parks' case was dismissed on a technicality.

March 19th was King's trial, and NAACP attorneys represented him. Found guilty, a $500 fine was assessed.

On June 5, 1956, a lower court determined in Browder v. Gayle that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Officials appealed; boycott leaders didn't expect a Supreme Court ruling anytime soon. The boycott continued.

The Supreme Court Decision

On November 13, 1956, the United States Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision and on December 17, the Supreme Court refused to consider appeals.

On December 21, 1956, King, Abernathy, Nixon, and other boycott leaders took a ride on the first desegregated bus -- 381 days after the boycott's genesis.

A sense of great pride and achievement could be seen in the upright posture and on the faces of blacks. Finally, they could live in dignity and no longer suffer the humiliation of second-class citizenship.

A Not-So-Lasting Peace

But Montgomery blacks came to realize that although laws could be changed, the hate-filled hearts of die-hard segregationists could not. Two days after the Supreme Court ruling, violence was unleashed. Groups of angry whites were hell-bent on stopping the mixing of races. They rode through black neighborhoods beating some, killing others.

Violence became a way of life for leaders of the boycott, many being forced to leave town. The homes of King and Nixon were bombed a second time. The homes of Abernathy and Rev. Graetz were also bombed. The Bell Street and Mt. Olive Baptist churches, where many boycott rallies took place, were completely destroyed by bombs.

Many of the leaders involved in the Montgomery Bus Boycott would eventually move out of the area.

It would later be the Freedom Riders, college students who sat at segregated lunch counters and rode buses throughout the South, that would ultimately test the Supreme Court’s ruling of integrated transportation and facilities for every passenger.

Legacy of the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Nearly 100 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Rosa Parks stated when asked about African-Americans' dogged determination throughout the bus boycott: "We just wanted to be free."

The Montgomery Bus Boycott proved to be a turning point. It catapulted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to worldwide fame and shaped him into the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. The boycott also inspired activists, black and white, to rise up and march in nonviolent protests to challenge racist ideals and policies across America.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott had phenomenal leaders, but it was the tremendous sacrifice of thousands of maids, cooks, and taxi drivers -- regular people whose names are lost to time -- who ultimately overthrew a powerful system of hatred and oppression, and secured their right and that of future generations to life and liberty.