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For 382 days, almost the entire African-American population of Montgomery, Alabama, including leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, refused to ride on segregated buses, a turning point in the American civil rights movement.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott
The first large scale demonstration opposing segregation was the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott began on December 5, 1955, and lasted until December 20, 1956. During this civil rights protest, African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to use the city bus system. While the black community had been fed up with the discriminatory busing system for years, the straw that broke the camels back came on December 1, 1955.
After a long day’s work, the 42-year-old Rosa Parks climbed onto the Cleveland Avenue bus in downtown Montgomery. She sat near the middle of the bus, behind the ten seats reserved for white passengers. As the bus traveled along its route, the white-only seats began to fill up quickly. The driver of the bus, James F. Blake, went to the middle of the bus and moved the “colored” sign further back to allow more white passengers a place to sit. Blake told Parks and three other black individuals to get up, so the white passengers could sit. Parks refused to give in to his demand, an action that would leave a permanent mark on history and the civil rights movement.
After Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, she was arrested. Parks was charged with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of Montgomery City code. After her arrest and booking, Clifford Durr and Edgar Nixon, the president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, bailed Parks out of jail. Four days later, members of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) came together to begin the Montgomery bus boycott. After a year-long struggle, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Browder v. Gayle that the city of Montgomery had to desegregate public transportation.
After MLK’s home was bombed, he refused to back down: ‘This movement will not stop’
Minutes after 9 p.m., on the night of Jan. 30, 1956, a segregationist parked his car in front of the modest white clapboard parsonage home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. In the shadows, the man walked up five steps leading to the front door and planted a stick of dynamite on the porch.
King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and a fellow Dexter Avenue Baptist Church member, Mary Lucy Williams, had been in the living room when they heard noise on the porch, according to a Jan. 31, 1956, report in the Montgomery Advertiser. The two women ran to a backroom of the house, where the Kings’ newborn baby daughter, Yolanda, was asleep.
Seconds later, the dynamite exploded, blasting out windows, tearing a hole in the porch, shredding floor boards and ripping through a porch pillar holding up the house that sat on a quiet Alabama street.
At the time of the bombing, King had just celebrated his 27th birthday. He’d been the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery for 19 months. And he’d started leading the Montgomery bus boycott, a movement organized after the Dec. 1, 1955, arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to vacate her bus seat to a White man.
In his 1958 memoir, “Stride Toward Freedom,” King described Parks as “ideal for the role assigned to her by history” because “her character was impeccable,” and she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community.”
Days after Parks’s arrest, King and others created the Montgomery Improvement Association to organize the bus boycott, which became a seminal event in the civil rights movement. Together, Black people in Montgomery would refuse to continue to ride segregated city buses, where they were subjected to discrimination and racism.
The boycott infuriated White Montgomery and its fervent segregationists.
On the night his house was bombed, King was speaking before 2,000 people attending a meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association at the Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church, according to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University.
According to notes taken at the meeting by Willie Mae Lee, King told the audience: “Our opponents, I hate to think of our governmental officials as opponents, but they are, have tried all sorts of things to break us, but we still hold steadfast.”
King said efforts to negotiate a compromise had failed, telling the crowd “they tried to conquer by dividing and that failed. And now they are trying to intimidate us by a get-tough-policy and that’s going to fail too because a man’s language is courage when his back is against the wall.”
“If all I have to pay is going to jail a few times and getting about 20 threatening calls a day,” King said, “I think that is a very small price to pay for what we are fighting for.”
There is no indication in Lee’s notes about when King received news of the bombing.
But King rushed from the pulpit and arrived at his damaged home 15 minutes later. To his relief, he found that this his wife and daughter were not injured.
An angry crowd of Black people began gathering outside King’s front yard.
He walked out on his damaged porch and delivered an impromptu speech seared in history.
“People let out with cheers that could be heard blocks away,” the Advertiser reported. “With the raising of his hand, they became quiet.”
King asked the crowd, infuriated by racial injustice and the bombing, to stay calm.
“We believe in law and order,” King said. “Don’t get your weapons. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said. We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. … Love them and let them know you love them.”
“I want it to be known the length and breadth of this land that if I am stopped, this movement will not stop. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”
Though police offered a $500 reward, there’s no evidence anyone was ever charged with the crime. Instead, King and more than 80 other leaders of the boycott would be indicted by the city “under a 1921 law prohibiting conspiracies that interfered with lawful business,” according to the King Institute. King was tried and convicted on the charge and ordered to pay $500 or serve 386 days in jail in the case
But the boycott continued. It ended successfully more than a year later after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. King’s leadership of the boycott propelled him to national fame — and made him a target.
In Montgomery on the night of the bombing — more than 12 years before an assassin would take his life — King offered reassurance to his followers. He told the crowd to “go home and don’t worry. … We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.”
Montgomery Bus BoycottRosa Parks's Symbolic Bus Ride, 1956 Made famous by Rosa Parks's refusal to give her seat to a white man, the Montgomery bus boycott was one of the defining events of the civil rights movement. Beginning in 1955, the 13-month nonviolent protest by the black citizens of Montgomery to desegregate the city's public bus system, Montgomery City Lines. Its success led to a November 1956 Supreme Court decision overturning segregated transportation that was legalized by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, an area left untouched by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision to desegregate public schools. Jo Ann Robinson Montgomery's black residents had prepared the ground for the bus boycott long in advance many had boycotted the buses on their own, or threatened to do so. In 1949, the newly formed Women's Political Council (WPC) of Montgomery, an activist group of black professional women, began organizing the black community and lobbying white officials to modify Jim Crow restrictions in public transportation, with little success. In May 1954, WPC president Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State College, warned the mayor in a letter that a bus boycott might be imminent. Edgar Daniel Nixon In the early evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa L. Parks finished her work as a tailor's assistant at Montgomery's largest department store. She and her husband Raymond had been civil rights activists for years. Rosa Parks served as secretary of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branch and as advisor to the NAACP youth council, which Colvin joined after her arrest. When the bus driver, whom Parks had defied years before, ordered her to give up her seat for a white man, she replied "no." Like Colvin and Smith, she was sitting in the unreserved midsection, and no vacant seat was free, so she would have had to stand while carrying her Christmas packages. King Meets with Bus Boycott Organizers When WPC president Robinson heard about Parks's arrest later that evening, she decided that the time had come for the long-considered boycott. Robinson and two students stayed up all night at the college mimeographing 50,000 flyers that called for a one-day bus boycott on Monday, December 5, the day of Parks's trial. The next day they distributed the flyers all over the city. After Robinson persuaded Nixon to support the effort, he phoned Montgomery's black ministers to enlist their aid. After initial hesitation, Baptist preacher Martin Luther King Jr., who had been selected pastor of Montgomery's middle-class Dexter Avenue Baptist Church the previous year, agreed to participate. Fellow Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy, who became King's close friend and confidant, joined eagerly and served as the most effective boycott mobilizer after King. Fred Gray On Monday morning, December 5, 1955, few African Americans rode buses. Most walked to work or school, carpooled with friends, took taxis, or hitchhiked. Parks was convicted of violating the segregation law and fined $14. Her young lawyer, Fred Gray, appealed the ruling. That afternoon, black leaders created the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) to run the bus protest and unexpectedly elected King as MIA president. That night, King gave a powerful speech to several thousand people assembled for the first of many MIA mass meetings held in black churches. The participants voted overwhelmingly to continue the protest until officials met their demands for fairer treatment. Car Pooling During the Montgomery Bus Boycott The bus boycott carried on, supported by virtually all of Montgomery's 40,000 black residents (more than one-third of the city population). Activist and cook Georgia Gilmore organized the "Club from Nowhere," a group of women who cooked and sold food to raise money for the boycott and also accepted anonymous donations, and she also fed boycotters and movement leaders in her Montgomery home. The MIA created a highly efficient carpool system managed by women leaders, one of many vital roles that women performed. City officials negotiated with MIA leaders, who had initiated talks in late December 1955. The officials made no concessions, however, and talks broke down in January. When it became evident that the boycott would continue indefinitely, and that the bus company (which supported an end to segregated seating) might be put out of business, the city commissioners adopted a "get tough" policy. Police harassed carpool drivers, and King was arrested on a false speeding charge. His house was bombed while his wife, Coretta, and infant daughter were at home, but they were unharmed. Nixon's home was also bombed, with little damage. (Later in the year, Abernathy's church and other churches and parsonages were bombed.) Rosa Parks Fingerprinted On January 30, MIA leaders decided that because the city government would not accept their moderate demands, they would challenge the constitutionality of bus segregation—no longer seeking its reform but its abolition. For technical reasons, Parks's case could not serve this purpose, so attorney Fred Gray filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four female plaintiffs: Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Aurelia Browder, and Susan McDonald. Meanwhile, in one of a string of blunders, city leaders indicted nearly 100 boycott leaders on conspiracy charges under an old anti-union law. They prosecuted King first, and his trial and conviction in March 1956 brought negative national publicity to the city as well as support and funds for the cause.
Posey Parking Lot Marker Unveiling The triumphant bus boycott galvanized King and other southern preachers and activists like Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which would initiate protests against white supremacy throughout the South. In this and other ways, the bus boycott prepared the ground for the historic black freedom movement that transformed American politics, culture, and values. The bus boycott forged the strategies and methods, the support networks and alliances, the language, vision, and spiritual expression that generated the ensuing mass movement for racial justice. The Montgomery experience showed the power of mass nonviolent direct action and set the standard for a democratic grassroots movement in which leadership was shared widely.
Boycott. DVD, directed by Clark Johnson. Los Angeles: Home Box Office, Inc., 2001.
A Look Back On Montgomery Bus Boycott — And What It Says About The Future
As the nation marks the 60th anniversary of the historic Montgomery bus boycott, listen to a selection from a panel discussion led by NPR's Michel Martin about the history and future of civil rights.
A Look Back On Montgomery Bus Boycott — And What It Says About The Future
Sixty years ago today on December 5, 1955, a group of Americans in Montgomery, Ala., began a bold protest that would change history. The Montgomery bus boycott was sparked by the arrest of seamstress Rosa Parks for refusing to give her seat to a white passenger. Following her arrest, African-Americans protested the segregated seating by boycotting buses for more than a year. That eventually led to a Supreme Court decision ending legal and forced segregation on public transportation. NPR's Michel Martin was in Montgomery earlier this week to commemorate the boycott. In cooperation with member station WVAS, she led a panel about the history and future of civil rights. This is an excerpt from the opening half of the discussion.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: And now I'd like to introduce our panelists. And, of course, they need no introduction - or rather, no introduction could do them justice but we will try. Taylor Branch is an historian and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "America In The King Years," a trilogy of books about Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Era. Taylor Branch, welcome.
MARTIN: Your own Gwendolyn Boyd - she is the president of Alabama State University, her alma mater.
MARTIN: Her career has been a series of firsts. She's the first woman president of ASU she was also appointed last year to President Obama's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. Gwendolyn Boyd, we're so glad to have you. Thank you.
MARTIN: Representing the next generation of activists, Ebony Howard is a civil rights litigator with the Southern Poverty Law Center. The youngest managing attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center in her work - that's right.
MARTIN: She has a particular focus on youth and schools. Ebony Howard, we are so glad to have you with us.
MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Robert Graetz served as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church here in Montgomery when the bus boycott began. It was his first appointment as senior pastor, and he was also a friend of Rosa Parks. Rev. Graetz, we are so glad to have you with us here.
MARTIN: Taylor Branch, we're going to ask you to set the table for us as you do so well. What are some of the issues that led to the boycott in 1955? Just tell us a little bit about the context for all of this?
TAYLOR BRANCH: The country was in a tremendous fix over the perpetual contradiction between slavery and American freedom. You had just had the Brown decision a year before in which eight white justices had said segregation was incompatible with American freedom. But nothing really had happened yet, except that the South had risen up against the ruling. And just a few months before the bus boycotts started, you had the Emmett Till lynching - a young man, roughly the same age as many of the activists who would later start the sit-ins and freedom rides, born in 1940, lynched at 14-years-old. So you had this contradiction that America was idealistic and yet raw and evasive on race.
MARTIN: All right, well, thank you, Taylor Branch. Rev. Graetz, you are the only one on this stage who was an adult at the time of the boycott and participated. Did you know what you were getting into?
ROBERT GRAETZ: Had no idea.
MARTIN: I remember reading an interview with you where you said that you had heard that somebody had been arrested and you didn't know that it was your good friend Rosa Parks. How did that happen?
GRAETZ: Well, of course, keep in mind that I was white back then.
GRAETZ: So that when the phone calls were made to all the black pastors in Montgomery, nobody called me.
GRAETZ: They dared not trust me because I was white. And they had had this lifelong experience of being betrayed by one white person after another, so nobody would share that with me. I got a call from a friend of ours - a young black Lutheran pastor - he said, I understand somebody was arrested on one of the buses, what do you know about it? I said, I don't know but I'll find out. I've got somebody who surely will know - called up Mrs. Parks on the phone. I understand that somebody's been arrested on one of the buses.
GRAETZ: She said, that's right, Pastor Graetz. You know anything about it? Yes, Pastor Graetz.
GRAETZ: Do you know who was arrested? Yes, Pastor Graetz. Well, who was it? And there was a little silence and this small voice said, it was me, Pastor Graetz.
MARTIN: Gwendolyn Boyd, what do you remember about those days? You were just a baby.
GWENDOLYN BOYD: I was a baby.
BOYD: So remembering the details of all that happened - but I grew up blocks from here, observing the segregation. The signs were there when I was growing up - colored only, white only - but it doesn't settle in to your spirit until you are a little bit more mature. Another part of growing up is understanding the defiance of the community - that we will stand up for justice and honesty and integrity and truth. And so having grown up in the heat of all of this, you lived in a community that knew that it was time. And so Montgomery was made for this moment. Mrs. Parks was not the first. But she was the one made for the moment.
MARTIN: Ebony Howard, I understand that some of this history is, in part, what made you want to become a lawyer. Is that true?
EBONY HOWARD: That's definitely true. Like the people who came before me, I've always felt a calling to this work. I am aware of so many people who gave their lives, who sacrificed, who could've just been quiet. But then I'm also aware of the people who had to say something. And I count myself as someone who is a descendent of those people. And so from a very early age, I was very fortunate to be aware of my history and to be aware of the sacrifices that so many people made for civil rights in this country. And then I went to Howard University - Alabama State is great - Howard University is also exceptional.
BOYD: (Laughter) I went there, too.
HOWARD: Awesome. And while I was there, I banded with other students who were all searching for how to continue this movement. We knew a lot about our history, but we saw so many injustices that were still happening. We saw children who were being pushed out of schools and into the criminal justice system. We saw facilities where black men and women have been jailed. Their chances for positive life outcomes have been drastically slashed. And so I felt like if Dr. King and every other hero from the civil rights movement put their life on the line, then that's the least I could to do is to step up, and it's what I'll always do.
NEARY: That was Michel Martin, regular weekend host of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, at her Montgomery bus boycott event earlier this week. You can hear the discussion in its entirety at NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR&rsquos programming is the audio record.
Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56)
The Montgomery Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama was a crucial event in the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement. On the evening of December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks, a Montgomery seamstress on her way home from work, refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white man and was subsequently arrested. The President of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), E.D. Nixon, used the arrest to launch a bus boycott to fight the city’s segregated bus policy. Together with Jo Ann Robinson of the Women’s Political Council, and other black leaders, Nixon set plans for the boycott.
The idea of the boycott had been floating around for months. Both Nixon and Robinson were waiting for a test cast to challenge the segregated bus policy in Court. They knew that they would have large support from black women who made up a majority of the bus users. The only thing missing was a good test candidate and respectable, middle-class Rosa Parks seemed perfect for the role.
On Friday December 2, Robinson created a flyer which she distributed to black families around Montgomery. The flyer told of the arrest of Parks and mentioned that 75% of the bus riders were blacks and if there was a boycott of the bus system then the city would be forced to pay attention to these customers. It then called for a boycott of the buses on Monday December 5th.
Robinson arranged a meeting with Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the ministers of two of the largest black churches in the city. While they hesitated at first, they ultimately agreed to participate and held a meeting at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King’s church, to plan the boycott. A new organization, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), was created to lead the boycott and Rev. King was appointed its president. It was also decided that the boycott should continue until the buses were no longer segregated. In order to get people around town during the boycott, the churches bought or rented cars and station wagons to transport people.
Eyewitness Reporting of the Civil Rights Movement
Robert E. Smith. "'We Shall Overcome': Where the Civil Rights Anthem Came From."The Southern Courier. vol. 2, no. 4. 22-23 January 1966. p. 4.
In July 16, 1965, in Montgomery, Alabama, a staff of student and recent graduate journalists and editors from Harvard University released the first issue of a small newspaper called The Southern Courier. The lead stories covered a range of local social and economic affairs related to the civil rights movement, including the integration of Tuskegee churches and outreach programs to improve voter registration and education. In their inaugural issue, the editors promised “to provide accurate information about these problems, and to supply a means of communication for the people who are trying to solve them.”
An NEH grant has provided partial support to the non-profit Southern Courier Association to create an open-access digital archive of all 177 editions of the newspaper, which is available online. At the site, you can search for local unsung leaders of the civil rights movement such as John Hulett follow the developments of stories such as the murder of Samuel Younge and the bloody politics of Lowndes County or browse through the archive of 11,000 photos by photojournalist James Peppler.
Front page of The Southern Courier, Sept. 11-12, 1965
The Southern Courier. vol. 1, no. 9. 11-12 September 1965.
Photographer James H. Peppler documents African Americans in Alabama registering to vote after passage of Voting Rights Act.
James H. Peppler. "The Vote Bill in Action."The Southern Courier. vol. 1, no. 6. 20 August 1965. p. 3.
You can also find reflections by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks on the tenth anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (vol. 1, no. 22). Dr. King wrote, “[The civil rights movement] is truly a revolution, but a revolution which can only be fully understood when looked upon in the light of history – and in the light of the fire of freedom which flickered then burned brightly in Montgomery….”
The Southern Courier reported on the civil rights movement from a local perspective. It covered happenings in Alabama and the Deep South with ‘bureaus’ in Birmingham, Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Tuskegee, and Jackson. The idea for the newspaper came out of the galvanizing marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, earlier that spring. Published from 1965 through 1968, the weekly, six-page newspaper focused on civil rights stories that other Southern papers would not cover or had been overlooked by the national press. It offered intimate accounts of conditions, struggles, and day-to-day events in communities on both sides of the struggle for equality and justice.
In the spring of 2006, the former reporters, photographers, and staff of the Southern Courier re-united in Montgomery and held a day-long public meeting to discuss their experience in the South during the 1960s. At the reunion, the staffers and supporters committed to creating the freely-accessible, searchable, online digital archive.
How Automobiles Helped Power the Civil Rights Movement
The driver glanced nervously into his rear-view mirror. The police motorcycles he had noticed a few blocks earlier were definitely trailing him. He glanced at his speedometer, determined to follow every traffic law. Then, as he stopped to let a passenger out of his car, the motorcycles pulled up toward him and it began: an ordeal mirrored every day by African American people hassled by the police for minor infractions. Two armed police officers demanded he get out of the car, then arrested him. Soon a patrol car arrived to take him to jail.
As the police cruiser turned down the dark streets of Montgomery, Alabama, he worried the police might beat him and leave him for dead. Instead, they took their time as they drove.
It was 1956, and Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been arrested for the first time.
The grounds for King’s arrest were that he had supposedly been driving 30 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone. But he knew the real reason he was being hassled: The civil rights leader had been using his car to help participants in the Montgomery bus boycott.
King was one of hundreds of people cited that week in 1956—people who used a carefully orchestrated carpool system to help smash the segregated bus system in the Alabama capital. Black-owned automobiles helped ensure the historic boycott’s success.
“Without the automobile, the bus boycott in Montgomery would not have been possible,” says Gretchen Sorin. Her book Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights tells the sweeping story of African Americans and automobiles—a tale of mobility and mobilization that helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement. A PBS documentary based on the book will air this fall.
Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights
In Driving While Black, the acclaimed historian Gretchen Sorin reveals how the car―the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility―has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing black families to evade the many dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road.
African American mobility had always been political slaveholders tried to limit the movement of enslaved people, Southern states attempted to reinstate laws that limited black travel during Reconstruction, and when that came to an end, public transportation emerged as a proving ground for Jim Crow segregation. By the 1950s, African Americans from the South had endured decades of inferior “separate but equal” conveyances that reinforced white supremacy.
The Montgomery bus boycott was intended to challenge those unequal structures with the power of the purse. As Sorin writes, white Montgomery bus drivers were known for being particularly vicious, and the “self-appointed vigilante enforcers” of the humiliating segregation system went out of their way to remind black passengers of their supposed inferiority.
But African American protesters had a powerful weapon on their side: cars. Automobiles helped fuel the Great Migration, and black people exercised their mobility whenever they could. By the 1950s, Sorin notes, about 475,000 African American families are thought to have owned at least one car, half of which they purchased new. People who were prevented from buying their own houses due to redlining and other discriminatory practices instead invested in sanctuaries with wheels.
“The automobile gave African-Americans freedom from humiliation and the ability to go where they wanted to go, when they wanted to go,” Sorin explains. Under segregation, she says, African Americans lived under constant frustration and fear. “One of the things that was great about having an automobile was that your children could be safely ensconced in the back seat. You’d be driving up front, and there was no opportunity for people to say anything horrible.” Private car ownership offered the opposite of segregated buses, where African American passengers were forced to sit in the back or stand in deference to white passengers.
By the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in a whites-only section of the bus in December 1955, African American leaders had been planning a city-wide bus boycott for months. Organizers knew that to make a major bus boycott work, they’d have to ensure that on-strike riders had a way to protest without losing their livelihoods.
“Think about how much territory a bus line covers,” says Sorin. “It’s miles and miles of road, and people have to get to work. If people are used to taking buses, not many of them can walk to work. People had to continue to get to work or they would lose their jobs.”
The Montgomery Improvement Association, the community organization that organized the boycott, saw private automobile ownership as a powerful alternative to the bus systems. As important as their list of demands was their plan for keep the boycott going. At first, they benefited from black taxi organizers who charged ten cents, the same fare as the buses, for rides in town. But when city officials forbade them from charging less than .45 per ride, protesters changed tactics and established a private taxi service of their own.
The elaborate carpool relied on a fleet of 15 “rolling churches”—station wagons donated to black churches by Northern supporters that were harder to seize than privately owned cars—to serve the 17,000 African American bus riders who took the buses twice every day. The service was like a carpool on steroids and relied on a combination of logistical smarts and improvisation. A black farmers’ association rented a safe parking lot to the fleet for cheap, and organizers arranged for a dispatch system. When white insurance companies refused to insure the cars, an African American insurance agent based in Montgomery finagled insurance through Lloyd’s of London instead. “It was no small effort to manage this fleet of vehicles,” says Sorin. Private drivers participated, too, and those who didn’t help as part of the formal pool arranged rides for one another and picked up hitchhikers.
Drivers needed something else: funds for gas and maintenance. To get them, they relied on donations and the unpaid labor of women within the movement. “Women stepped up,” says Sorin. Women who worked thankless domestic jobs in white homes opened their own homes to civil rights workers from the North, drove others to and from work, and spent their evenings and weekends cooking for bake sales and food sales. “They sold sandwiches, They sold chicken. They sold cake and pie. And they made money for the movement.” Often, says Sorin, their white customers had no idea their purchases had helped fund the boycott.
Those who did carpool during the boycott had to stay vigilant, especially when W.A. Gayle, Montgomery’s white mayor, instituted a “get tough” policy that involved monitoring boycott-friendly drivers for any real or imagined traffic infraction. He even announcing a false settlement in the hopes of breaking the boycott.
“Every single time an African American family went out on the road, they were doing something potentially very dangerous,” says Sorin. “They were challenging white supremacy. They were challenging the status quo. They were challenging segregation. While it was dangerous, it was also courageous.” Boycott or no boycott, the seemingly everyday act of getting behind a wheel was symbolic for black drivers.
Eleven months into the boycott, though, the carpools came to an abrupt halt when Montgomery slapped them with an injunction claiming they were a private enterprise operating without a legal permit. The legal move shook King and other organizers, but the maneuver had come too late for the segregationists. On the same day a federal court upheld the city’s ban, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bus segregation as unconstitutional. As historian Doron Shultziner notes, the injunction could have “literally stopped the wheels of the car-pooling system and of the Montgomery bus boycott” if officials had realized they could use it earlier.
Instead, the boycott only lasted another month and in December 1956, more than a year after Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, ended in triumph. The Civil Rights Movement’s footsoldiers had proved their willingness to walk to work rather than give their money to a bus system that discriminated against them—but they got plenty of help from a fleet of four-wheeled vehicles of progress.
Montgomery Bus Boycott: Organizing Strategies and Challenges
The Montgomery Bus Boycott is a model for social movement organization and strategy because it had all the ingredients for success, including:
drawing from preexisting social organizations and establishing a support base through the development of networks
having a catalytic leadership, who had the power to stimulate and encourage followers, and the ability to determine when and how to respond to events and circumstances
tapping outside resources in the immediate locale and developing and cultivating interest among those who may be or appear to be uninterested
employing a strategy rooted in confronting oppression, providing hope, challenging existing structures, and achieving relief from injustice and
defining a clear, ultimate goal of eliminating segregation. (This list is drawn from a course presentation by Julian Bond.)
Most textbooks and children’s books about the boycott emphasize the second ingredient— the catalytic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks—leaving out not only the other critical elements, but, most importantly, the role of the thousands of Montgomery residents who boycotted public transportation for over a year.
In this activity, students will act as organizers and learn about many of the challenges faced by a group who sustained a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, for 381 days. The activity typically takes five to seven class periods. While it is designed for middle school students, high school teachers can successfully modify this lesson for the upper grades by making the decision-making process less structured.
Here are resources for teaching the more complete story.
Mythbusters Quiz on the Montgomery Bus Boycott
This “learn-as-you-go” quiz, created by Teaching for Change, is designed for grades 6-12 and for professional development.
Role Play: Montgomery Bus Boycott Organizing Strategies and Challenges
A five part lesson for grades 7-12 helps students understand the challenges faced by the Montgomery Improvement Association as they worked to organize and sustain the boycott for 381 days. From Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching.
Dramatization of the Bus Boycott for First and Second Grade
How to introduce the story of the boycott to young children. By Maggie Donovan. From Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching.
Civil Rights Teaching: Montgomery Bus Boycott
Books for learning and teaching about the Montgomery Bus Boycott that help put Rosa Parks and the boycott in the context of a greater struggle for social justice.
Primary Documents and Articles
The Politics of Children’s Literature: What’s Wrong with the Rosa Parks Myth
A critical analysis by Herb Kohl (originally published by Rethinking Schools) that challenges the myths in children’s books about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website
The CRMvet.org website offers a detailed, highly engaging narrative history of the Montgomery Bus Boycott within a historical context. The narrative includes first person testimonies and links to primary documents.
National Archives and Records Administration
The National Archives includes the arrest records of Rosa Parks in their teaching with documents collection.
The Alabama Department of Archives & History
The Alabama Archives offer primary documents on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, including:
Freedom’s Main Line
Learn how activists in Louisville, Kentucky successfully campaigned against segregated streetcars in 1870-71 in this article from the Teaching Tolerance booklet, “A Place at the Table.”
Widespread Boycotts at the Turn of the Century
Read about dozens of boycotts by African Americans in “The Boycott Movement Against Jim Crow Streetcars in the South, 1900-1906” by August Meier from the Journal of American History.
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress houses an extensive collection on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Film and Audio-Visual
Teaching About the Montgomery Bus Boycott
In this short film, Teaching About the Montgomery Bus Boycott, first grade teacher Maggie Donovan (SNCC veteran) introduces her students to the fight to desegregate the buses, placing Rosa Parks in the context of the larger community efforts. This film by Teaching for Change is ideal for professional development workshops. 2006. 15 min.
The website Montgomery Bus Boycott: They Changed the World offers video clips of activists about the events surroundings the boycott, voices of the boycott, news articles, and more.
Eyes on the Prize, the award-winning 14-hour television series, produced by Blackside and narrated by Julian Bond, includes a segment on the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
A made-for-TV movie that dramatizes the events of the Montgomery busboycott, weaving vintage newsreel footage with scenes depicting thegrassroots organizing and leadership challenges. It is an older film, however it does a good job of challenging the traditional narrative. Actors include Carmen Ejogo and Terrence Howard. 2001. 120 minutes.
Women and the Civil Rights Movement
Professor Elsa Barkley Brown produced a PowerPoint presentation on women in the Civil Rights Movement with a focus on the long history of resistance to segregation on public transportation. Posted here with permission of the author.
Please email us if you have corrections and/or any resources we can add for teaching about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.