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It had happened countless times before. A black person aboard a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus had been ordered by a white bus driver to surrender his or her seat to a white passenger. For the most part, blacks obeyed this order without visible resistance. To behave in any other manner meant violating a city ordinance, resulting in probable arrest and possible violence. But this time was different. A black woman passenger refused to give up her seat and was arrested. This act signaled the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the start of the Modern Civil Rights Movement.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott was a 381-day protest by African Americans against segregation on city buses. From December 5, 1955 to December 20 of the next year, blacks in the capital city walked and formed car pools to get to their destinations, rather than ride the segregated vehicles. Their actions demonstrated that they were a determined people, willing to risk personal safety and comfort in order to confront an unjust system. Not only did their actions lead to the destruction of this system; they also led to a challenge of racial discrimination throughout the South.
The dignified, but demure-looking, middle-aged black woman whose arrest sparked the boycott, did not intend to stage a one-woman sit-in on a Montgomery bus. But Rosa Parks' background and character prepared her to do just that. On December 1, 1955, the day of her arrest, she was forty-two years old. She had faced segregation, discrimination, and violence as a black Alabamian. But as a child growing up in Pine Level, Alabama, she had been taught by her maternal grandfather to never accept injustice without protest. One of her most lasting and poignant childhood memories was of sitting up all night with her grandfather as he armed himself to protect his home and family from the Ku Klux Klan.
Parks carried this example of resistance to racism with her when she moved to Montgomery years later. She joined the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP was a national civil rights organization whose goal was to achieve blacks' full civil rights. For several years Parks served as the branch's secretary, where she worked closely with branch president, E. D. Nixon. Nixon was likely the most militant African American in Montgomery. Not only was he president of the local NAACP; he was also the head of the local affiliate of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As leader of both groups, Nixon led black Montgomerians in an attack of various forms of racial inequities. Parks was emboldened in her conviction that blacks should resist unfair treatment by Nixon's willingness to confront segregation, racial discrimination and anti-black violence in Montgomery.
A Montgomery racial situation which disturbed Rosa Parks, E. D. Nixon, and other blacks in the city, concerned separate seating on city buses. Parks' job as a seamstress at the downtown Montgomery Fair Store, required that she ride the bus on a regular basis. But she never accepted segregated conditions imposed upon blacks who rode the buses. Montgomery's segregationist ordinance and established practice in the city required that blacks sit in the last ten rows of seats on the bus and that whites sit in the first ten rows. A reserved section of sixteen rows of seats was also available for black passengers, but if a white passenger was without a seat, blacks had to remove themselves from this section.
The law also called for blacks to pay their fare at the front of the bus but to board the vehicle from the rear. White bus drivers often pulled from a bus stop before a black passenger could board from the back door. At other times, drivers drove off as blacks boarded the bus, leaving them caught in the back doorway. But even worse was the insulting treatment African Americans received from white drivers; they were frequently cursed and called names. Protest of this kind of treatment could result in violence, as it did for a black soldier who was killed by a bus driver in the early 1950's. Parks herself had been thrown off a city bus in 1943 in a dispute with a white bus driver.
Initiating a protest against these conditions was not on Parks' mind as she stepped aboard a municipal bus on Thursday, December 1, 1955. She had finished her day's work at the Montgomery Fair Store and had boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus as she headed to her home in Cleveland Court. Because the bus was crowded she sat in the middle section. At the third stop, at the Empire Theater, a white male patron boarded the bus and was left standing. The "Mother of the Civil Rights Movement" later affirmed that her decision to remain seated was not based on physical fatigue. Parks maintained that her action was the result of long years of anger and frustration over the treatment blacks received under Montgomery's segregationist laws and customs. She was simply tired of blacks being pushed around.
Parks' arrest set in motion long years of planning for such an event by the local civil rights organizations and civic groups. The Women's Political Council, a civic group composed of black women professionals, had considered a boycott of the city's buses before Parks' arrest. What the Council and black leaders like E. D. Nixon needed was a black passenger whose arrest would engender a city-wide boycott of Montgomery's buses. Parks' image in the black community and her convictions regarding racial injustice made her a person upon whom they believed they could base their protest.
On the evening of Parks' arrest, Jo Ann Robinson, head of the Council and Professor of English at Alabama State College, a local black institution, duplicated thousands of copies of flyers announcing a one-day boycott, scheduled for the following Monday, December 5. The flyer urged blacks to "stay off all buses Monday." Instead, they were to walk "to work, to town, [and to] school." Black ministers agreed to announce the boycott to their congregations that Sunday. Announcement of the boycott also appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser on Sunday. Through these methods, nearly all in the black community were made aware of the protest plans.
Despite years of planning, local leaders were uncertain of the outcome of the one-day boycott. They were ecstatic when they observed Monday morning that the boycott was almost a total success. That afternoon they formed an organization to spearhead the movement, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). A twenty-five-year-old black minister, Martin Luther King Jr., pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was selected as the organization's president. King was chosen by the group because he was an intelligent, young black man (he had received his Ph.D. from Boston University), and because his position as a newcomer to the city (arriving just the year before) meant he had not yet formed personal enemies who might also become enemies of the boycott.
Meanwhile, a mass meeting of blacks in the city was scheduled for that evening at Holt Street Baptist Church. Thousands gathered at the church for the purpose of determining the future course of the protest. King and the boycott's co-leader, black minister Ralph D. Abernathy (the pastor of First Baptist Church), set the tone of the meeting. They called upon blacks to continue the protest and made three demands of the white bus company and city officials. They were for "(1) Courteous treatment on the buses; (2) First-come, first-served seating, with whites in the front and blacks in the back; (3) Hiring of black drivers for the black bus routes." Blacks in attendance vowed to support a continued boycott and the list of demands.
For over a year black Montgomerians carried out their pledge. As they had been urged, they walked to their jobs, homes, and to stores. The MIA initially used black taxi cabs to transport others to their destinations. Later, when city officials forbade this practice, the MIA organized an intricate system of car pools. It established pick-up and drop-off points throughout the black community, using church station wagons. The system enabled blacks to carry out their obligations without being forced to return to city buses.
Meanwhile, white authorities refused to accept the MIA's demands. The organization then decided to use local black attorney, Fred Gray, to initiate a suit against the city's segregationist statute, charging that it violated the constitutional rights of blacks. Opposition by white authorities to the boycott was not limited to their refusal to accede to the demands of the boycotters. They ordered an arrest of the boycott's leaders based on a city law which prohibited boycotts without a legal basis. When this tactic proved unsuccessful, local whites attempted to squash the movement through intimidation and violence. In late January of 1956 the home of King was bombed and other boycott leaders received violent threats.
Blacks' capacity to endure daily discomfort and physical threats was in many ways the result of the leadership of King. King articulated a philosophy that became the calling card of the boycott and later the Modern Civil Rights Movement. Based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and Mahatma Ghandi, this philosophy is labeled non-violent passive resistance. It urged blacks to resist their enemies through love rather than hate and retaliation. This kind of behavior would eventually shame Southern racists into acceptance of the blacks' civil rights. Most black Montgomerians accepted King's nonviolent philosophy and this was in part responsible for the success of their protest.
Another reason for the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was the involvement of the entire black community in the effort. Black working class individuals, who were the bus company's principal patrons, bore the brunt of the boycott. But all socio-economic segments of the African-American community came together to agitate against segregated city buses. Their vigilance in the struggle for their legal rights was rewarded November 13, 1956, when the United States Supreme Court upheld a federal district court decision affirming that segregation on city buses was unconstitutional. Blacks chose to maintain the boycott until the court's official documents were received. That took place on December 20. The next day they returned, but this time to integrated buses, ending one of the most significant eras in American history and the beginning of another.